The 49ers are still in it. They got to the wild-card round in the last 30 minutes of the season Sunday when their most celebrated players finished with a big clutch game.
Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig and Russ Francis parlayed the deciding plays as the 49ers came from behind to level the Dallas Cowboys, 31-16.
Craig earned a spot in the record books as the first player ever to gain more than 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving in a single season. Craig rushed for 72 yards and caught passes for 50 yards while scoring on a four-yard run to lead San Francisco's comeback victory.
"Roger Craig is a great player," 49er Coach Bill Walsh said. "He's been the key to our success this year. He is one of the great backs in football, but we let up with him a little in the second half because he is beginning to wear down."
Craig said he was happy when the record chase ended in the third quarter.
"When you get that close to a record, people begin to worry about when you are going to break it," he said. "I was conscious of the record in the game, but I was concentrating more on the things it would take to win. I was just trying to get the first down (on the record-setting pass reception) to keep our team going."
They may be in the playoffs, but the 49ers will be exclusively a road team in this year's tournament, starting next Sunday against the New York Giants at the Meadowlands.
It is likely to be very cold there, with snow possible and an icy wind likely. But against Dallas, the 49ers played as if they're looking forward to the trip.
"We won this one on pride and character," Walsh said, "and we're not afraid of a little cold weather in New York. Over the years, we've been an excellent road club."
The 49ers are heading East as a wild card team instead of taking on Dallas again on Jan. 4 as NFC West champions because they lost the Western title to the Rams here earlier this month, 27-20.
Walsh said the season's turning point was the Ram pass that 49er safety Ronnie Lott deflected back to the Rams for a fourth-quarter touchdown, depriving an interception from a 49er teammate.
"That took a lot out of our team," Walsh said. "For us to come back from a thing like that--and still make it to the playoffs--shows what we're made of. I'm proud of our season."
A streak of injuries has hurt the 49ers, costing them their 1,000-yard-gaining halfback, Wendell Tyler, and their best blocker, guard Randy Cross, among others, but Walsh still thinks it's possible for the defending Super Bowl champions to return to the title game as a wild card.
"It's been done before," he said, noting that a wild-card Raider team once won the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys, who will have two weeks to rest up for the Rams, also are hurting. Their top two quarterbacks, Danny White and Gary Hogeboom, are walking around with left-shoulder separations. White didn't suit up, and although Hogeboom kept playing, he didn't play well after he was injured.
"We're coming out of here a little sore," Dallas Coach Tom Landry said, "but I don't think we're going into the playoffs on a down note."
Clearly, the loss in San Francisco didn't make Landry that unhappy.
"We achieved our goal of winning the NFC East and not being in a wild-card game," he said. "So, we've done everything we set out to do."
His halfback, Tony Dorsett, did not sound quite as satisfied.
"We have nothing to feel good about, we lost the game," Dorsett said. "We had them on the ropes early, but we couldn't come up with the big play to put them away."
Dorsett was right about that. The Cowboys drove 86 yards to the only touchdown of a 7-0 first quarter, and still led at the half, 16-10.
But the 49ers had started to make their move in the second quarter, when Montana and Clark collaborated on a 49-yard touchdown pass play. And, in the second half, the 49ers took charge, driving 44, 46 and 61 yards to the last three touchdowns of the game.
The 49ers made their second-half scores in three different ways, on a 4-yard run by Craig, a 24-yard pass to Clark and a 15-yard end-around run by rookie Jerry Rice.
"Montana and Craig are the 49ers," Dallas defensive back Dennis Thurman said.
Said Landry: "Against the 49ers, the No. 1 thing is to stop Craig and Montana."
Still, the 49ers might not have won this time but for Clark's five catches, two for touchdowns.
The moves Clark made on a Dallas defensive back, Victor Scott, twice put him in the open for the touchdowns that led to the rout.
Scott, who usually plays only in Dallas' seven-back defenses, was pressed into action as a regular by cornerback Ron Fellows' injury. Although Fellows would have been more of a challenge to Clark, Clark can beat Fellows, too, and has.
"Clark is a classic wide receiver," Walsh said. "He causes a lot of people to mis-cover him."
On the principal plays of the 49ers' three-touchdown second half, the architects included a new-old star, tight end Russ Francis.
Since coming to San Francisco, Francis hasn't matched his best years at New England until recently, particularly Sunday, when he was on the receiving end of first-down passes on all three of San Francisco's scoring drives in the final 30 minutes.
"Francis has come around," Walsh said.
For Dallas, Hogeboom played his best game this year, tailing off only after he was hurt.
"Their defense is one of the toughest to play against," Hogeboom said after the 49ers had sacked him six times.
Hogeboom completed 28 of 49 attempted passes for 389 yards on a day when his team seemed to quit on him a little after the half.
Montana completed 24 of 34 for 322 yards, starting slowly and finishing fast, which is the way he does it when his team gets the hang of the other club's blitzing.
Dallas turnovers gave the 49ers their chance. In the first half, when the Cowboys were going in for what could have become a 20-0 lead in the second quarter, Dorsett fumbled the ball away at the 49er 18-yard line. San Francisco took it all the way back for a touchdown.
In the second half, Hogeboom's most costly interception came at the Dallas 24 when he made a bad read and sent the ball to the 49ers' Lott.
That set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Landry might also have regreted his decision with 12 minutes left in the game when he elected to run the ball on fourth and inches at the 49er 27 at a time when the 49er lead was only 24-16.
A field goal of 44 yards, easily within Rafael Septien's, range, would have put the Cowboys close enough to win it with a touchdown. Instead, after losing 11 yards on fourth and inches, they folded their tent and went home.