The San Francisco 49ers did exactly what they plotted to do this season. So focused were they on finally beating the dreaded Dallas Cowboys in the NFC championship game that the Super Bowl was practically an afterthought.
“The Super Bowl, in my opinion, will be anticlimactic,” team president Carmen Policy said after the 49ers beat Dallas 38-28 Sunday.
“It would be a tragedy if we lose, but that’s how big I feel this win is.”
The 49ers exorcised the memory of two straight losses in the NFC title game to the Cowboys, denying them a shot at becoming the first team to win three straight Super Bowls and giving themselves a shot at becoming the first to win five.
In the process, they erased the long shadows of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana that seemed to linger over George Seifert and Steve Young.
The 49ers now play the San Diego Chargers, 17-13 winners over Pittsburgh for the AFC championship, in the All-California Super Bowl in Miami on Jan. 29.
San Francisco, which routed the Chargers 38-15 in San Diego on Dec. 11, was installed as a 17-point favorite to become the 11th straight NFC champion to win the Super Bowl. That line was the largest opening spread in Super Bowl history, and it began moving up almost instantly.
“It’s got to be the thrill of my coaching career,” said Seifert, who won a Super Bowl in his first year as Walsh’s successor but has never been able to outshine the man they call “The Genius” despite a career mark of 83-24, a percentage of .776.
It was equally important to Young, who had labored in the shadow of Montana as the quarterback “who couldn’t win the big one.”
After he finally won it Sunday, he took what amounted to a victory lap around waterlogged Candlestick Park while the fans, who used to yell “Joe! Joe! Joe!” hollered, “Steve! Steve! Steve!”
“To answer that pressure is one of the great feelings in sports,” said Young, who threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score. After his TD run, he slammed the ball down in the end zone, a reflection of the 49ers’ new in-your-face attitude that has replaced the “Joe Cool” team that won four Super Bowls under Montana.
Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, who lost for the first time in the playoffs after winning his first seven starts, congratulated Young on the field. “I said, ‘This is your year. It’s your turn.”’
Now it will be up to the two-time NFL MVP to lead the team in the NFL championship game something Montana won four times, twice with Young sitting on the bench.
Emmitt Smith, who came into the game with a hamstring injury, played most of the way and scored twice for Dallas. But he was a non-factor because the 49ers jumped to a quick 21-0 lead beginning when Eric Davis intercepted an Aikman pass on the third play from scrimmage and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown.
“Spotting them a 21-point lead is like spotting Carl Lewis 20 yards in a 100-yard dash,” Smith said.
The win also vindicated Policy and owner Eddie DeBartolo, who swore after last year’s NFC title loss in Dallas that it wouldn’t happen again.
So they went out and maneuvered the salary cap like no other team to sign defensive standouts such as Rickey Jackson, Ken Norton and, most of all, Deion Sanders.
Sanders held Alvin Harper to one reception and had one of three San Francisco interceptions.
Three times Dallas got to within 10 points, but Young twice retaliated by bringing the 49ers back.
The Cowboys lost despite that Smith, who entered with a pulled left hamstring, lasted until he pulled his right hamstring with 10:28 left. He had 74 yards in 20 carries.
“The best-prepared team always wins,” said Dallas guard Nate Newton, in what could have been a veiled critique of Cowboys coach Barry Switzer, who was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the game after bumping an official.
On the third play from scrimmage, Davis, the forgotten man once the 49ers signed Sanders, slid in front of Irvin on a slant, grabbed the ball and took it 44 yards untouched to the end zone. There he was swamped by virtually the entire 49ers team.
On the next series, Davis knocked the ball loose from Irvin after a reception and Tim McDonald recovered. That led to a 29-yard TD pass from Young to Ricky Watters.
On the ensuing kickoff, Adam Walker knocked the ball loose from Kevin Williams and kicker Doug Brien fell on it at the 35. Six plays later, rookie William Floyd took it in from a yard away and it was 21-0 before the first quarter was half over.
But Dallas didn’t quit. The Cowboys cut the deficit to 24-14 late in the first half.
That set up two crucial series.
Dallas, on its own 16 with 59 seconds to go in the half, elected to throw three times and John Jett’s 23-yard punt gave San Francisco the ball at the 39 with 30 seconds left.
Three plays later, Jerry Rice simply streaked past Larry Brown and caught a perfect pass from Young.
“That was the big play,” Young said. “Until then, we hadn’t really put it away. I give them a lot of credit for fighting back.”
49ers 38, Cowboys 28
Dallas 7 7 7 7 - 28
San Francisco 21 10 7 0 - 38
SF-Davis 44 interception return (Brien kick), 1:02.
SF-Watters 29 pass from S.Young (Brien kick), 4:19.
SF-Floyd 1 run (Brien kick), 7:27.
Dal-Irvin 44 pass from Aikman (Boniol kick), 12:46.
SF-FG Brien 34, 9:06.
Dal-E.Smith 4 run (Boniol kick), 13:04.
SF-Rice 28 pass from S.Young (Brien kick), 14:52.
Dal-E.Smith 1 run (Boniol kick), 3:12.
SF-S.Young 3 run (Brien kick), 8:21.
Dal-Irvin 10 pass from Aikman (Boniol kick), 6:31.
Dal SF First downs 29 19 Rushes-yards 24-99 31-139 Passing 352 155 Punt Returns 1-10 0-0 Kickoff Returns 7-144 5-90 Interceptions Ret. 0-0 3-44 Comp-Att-Int 30-53-3 13-29-0 Sacked-Yards Lost 4-28 0-0 Punts 1-23 5-36 Fumbles-Lost 2-2 1-1 Penalties-Yards 9-98 4-30 Time of Possession 33:56 26:04
RUSHINGDallas, E.Smith 20-74, K.Williams 2-12, Aikman 1-9, Johnston 1-4. San Francisco, Watters 14-72, S.Young 10-47, Floyd 7-20.
PASSINGDallas, Aikman 30-53-3-380. San Francisco, S.Young 13-29-0-155.
RECEIVINGDallas, Irving 12-192, K.Williams 6-78, Novacek 5-72, Johnston 3-19, E.Smith 3-5, Harper 1-14. San Francisco, B.Jones 3-37, Floyd 3-16, Rice 2-36, Taylor 2-31, Popson 2-6, Watters 1-29.
MISSED FIELD GOALSBoniol, 27.
MEMO: This is a sidebar which appeared with story: NFC final San Francisco 38, Dallas 28 Stars: San Francisco quarterback Steve Young, who rushed 10 times for 47 yards and one touchdown, and completed 13 of 29 passes, with no interceptions, for 155 yards and two scores; Dallas wide receiver Michael Irvin, who caught 12 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
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