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So this is how it ends: in the mud, in distress, in a California fog.
The Bears, 17-point underdogs going into Saturday's second-round NFC playoff game, had their lunch handed to them Saturday-a five-star San Francisco treat. A mere 17-point loss would have been more palatable.
The 49ers (14-3) advanced to the NFC championship game next Sunday after having their way with the no-name team from Chicago 44-15.
And it could have been worse.
San Francisco coach George Seifert called off his dogs in the second half, replacing most of the starters after rolling to a 30-3 lead at intermission.
Bears coach Dave Wannstedt replaced starting quarterback Steve Walsh with Erik Kramer in the second half.
Walsh had completed 10 of 19 pass attempts for 78 yards. But he threw two interceptions and failed to mobilize the offense after a first-period 49ers turnover paved the way to a 3-0 Bears lead.
Wannstedt, always the optimist, referred to the blowout as a learning experience and barometer of what the Bears have to do during the off-season.
"Obviously, credit goes to San Francisco, George, his staff and his players," said Wannstedt, whose team finished 10-8 after making the playoffs as the last NFC wild-card entry. "They played like the team they are-the best team in football, record-wise. We found out today what we need to do as a football team."
Wannstedt said one of the Bears' priorities will be signing Walsh. Kramer, who has two years left on his contract, said Saturday he wants to return.
The Bears have nearly two dozen potential free agents, including key players such as Walsh, Mark Carrier, Vinson Smith, Tom Waddle, Chris Zorich and Jeremy Lincoln.
"We've got to get Steve signed, get both of them into camp, and go from there," said Wannstedt.
The Bears were never a match for the 49ers. They were far from their best, and the 49ers made them pay in front of 64,644 fans at Candlestick Park.
San Francisco rushed for 145 yards on 37 carries (5.2-yard average), while the Bears ran for only 39 yards on 18 tries (2.2).
That pretty much shows which team controlled the contest.
Steve Young was 16 of 22 for 143 yards and one TD before giving way to backup Elvis Grbac in the second half. Ricky Watters, William Floyd, Dexter Carter and Young took turns badgering the Bears' defensive line. To keep the Bears honest, the 49ers executed a reverse to John Taylor.
"We know we have to crank it up now for this next game, despite what happened today," said Seifert, whose NFC West champions will next host the winner of Sunday's Green Bay-Dallas game. "I'll have to say Chicago had a great year. They did a great job of coaching that football team. We're pleased, certainly, the way things worked out."
The Bears showed some fight after a Young touchdown. Strong safety Shaun Gayle stuck his shoulder in Young's midsection with a forceful hit after the Pro Bowl quarterback had run 6 yards into the end zone. Young then spiked the ball at the feet of Gayle and a melee ensued.
"I hope Steve understood I wouldn't put a cheap shot on him," said Gayle. "I had no idea he was already across the goal line. It was a good acting job on his part."
Asked if he saw Young spike the ball at his feet, Gayle replied: "No, I was looking at the angry crowd coming toward me."
The Bears figured the only realistic chance they had to upset the 49ers was to get an early lead after some turnovers. The 49ers obliged in the first period when Young passed to tight end Brent Jones. Bears linebacker Joe Cain stuck his helmet on the football, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Alonzo Spellman at the San Francisco 36 with 14:04 left in the first period.
The Bears moved the ball to the 21 before settling on a 39-yard field goal by Kevin Butler.
"We got the turnover and couldn't get the touchdown. That's tough," said Wannstedt. "It's tough to win when the other team doesn't punt (in the first half)."
San Francisco launched a 68-yard drive before Floyd piled through for a 2-yard TD run.
Walsh's lob pass intended for Curtis Conway was intercepted by cornerback Eric Davis with 2:43 left in the first quarter. Six plays and 54 yards later, the 49ers cashed in on an 8-yard pass from Young to Jones. Doug Brien's kick hit off the right upright, no good, but the 13-3 lead was just the start for the 49ers.
Floyd added his second touchdown from 4 yards away with 6:04 left in the half at the end of a nine-play, 61-yard march. That made it 20-3 and more ominous for the Bears than the swirling wind and rain.
Brien tacked on a 36-yard field goal to make it 23-3, then Young's TD run, after a botched fake punt by the Bears, made it 30-3.
One of the Bears' rare highlights occurred in the second half when Kramer passed 2 yards to rookie defensive lineman Jim Flanigan for a touchdown. Flanigan lines up as a fullback in short-yardage situations and generally blocks.
"It was nice; it was something to be proud of," said Flanigan. "It would have been really memorable had it been for the winning touchdown. I got the ball and I'll put it on my mantel. That was my first touchdown since high school."
With Saturday's debacle behind them, the Bears will begin looking ahead to next season.
"We took a big step last week (against the Vikings)," said veteran defensive end Trace Armstrong.
"Today we played against the best team in football, and now we know where we have to go. We are a team a lot of people didn't give a chance to go anywhere. So we have a lot to be proud of."