Sitting through the shock at the bay is how San Francisco 49ers fans will remember a certain playoff Saturday, an occasion that was supposed to have been a walk through Candlestick Park on the way to San Diego and the Super Bowl.
Instead, the 49ers will have to live with the final score and the indignity of the season that was theirs for the taking, or so it seemed.
The Minnesota Vikings, league wild cards and everyone else’s discards, pulled off what others deemed impossible. Not only did the Vikings defeat the 49ers, 36-24, before a crowd of 62,547, they defeated them soundly and advanced to the National Football Conference championship game next week.
To understand what happened, you only need to know that Minnesota’s Allen Rice had more catches and yardage than San Francisco’s Jerry Rice.
It wasn’t enough that Jerry Rice was merely upstaged, as he was by the Vikings’ Anthony Carter, who caught 10 passes for a playoff-record 227 yards.
But since when is Rice out-Riced?
Since Saturday. History will record that A. Rice had 4 catches for 39 yards, and J. Rice finished with 3 receptions for 28 yards.
And it also helps to know that 49er quarterback Joe Montana, perhaps the greatest comeback player the position has known, was pulled in favor of Steve Young with his team trailing badly in the third quarter.
For Montana, there would be no Cotton Bowl comebacks or title-winning passes to Dwight Clark. There would be only defeat.
The loss was all but conceded with 6:19 left in the third quarter, when Young quickly loosened his arm and replaced Montana in the huddle with the 49ers trailing, 27-10.
“I told Joe we had to try to change the chemistry,” 49er coach Bill Walsh said of his decision. “But you can’t say that was the answer.”
Young and his fancy feet would scare the Vikings briefly, but Minnesota’s game plan had reached fruition with Montana’s exit.
The Vikings, with a defensive front four as formidable as any, planned to shake, rattle and roll Montana all the way to the sideline.
The Vikings and their defensive coordinator, Floyd Peters, had hoped to stretch Montana and his tender hamstring to the point of submission.
In that they succeeded.
Montana, under heavy pressure from linemen Chris Doleman and Keith Millard, was sacked 4 times and completed 12 of 26 passes for 109 yards.
“I don’t think he’s as effective a scrambler as he’s been in the past,” Peters said of Montana.
Defensive end Doleman, who had two sacks, said putting the heat on Montana was the difference between defeat and victory.
“The game is played on the line,” Doleman said. “You can have Jerry Rice and Anthony Carter and the greatest quarterback in the league, but if you don’t do anything to stop the rush, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Doleman teased and taunted 49er tackle Bubba Paris to no end with an assortment of quick moves.
Doleman, who is built more like an outside linebacker at 6 feet 5 inches and 265 pounds, controlled his man.
Doleman said Paris tired quickly.
“Bubba’s a big man; he’s got to be 320 pounds,” Doleman said. “He’s got a lot of weight and eventually your legs get tired.”
On offense, the Vikings relied on Carter and surprisingly, the 49ers rarely used double coverage on him. This after Carter only a week ago had made a mess of the New Orleans Saints secondary.
“He dominated the field,” said Viking quarterback Wade Wilson, who finished having completed 20 of 34 passes for 298 yards and 2 touchdowns. “I’m surprised they did put single coverage on him. As long as they do that, we’re going to get him they ball.”
Carter did not score a touchdown but had a hand in most every Minnesota score.
His two catches on the opening drive set up a 21-yard Chuck Nelson field goal.
Two more Carter catches in the second quarter set up a 7-yard scoring pass from Wilson to Carl Hilton to put the Vikings ahead, 10-3.
Carter’s 63-yard reception on the Vikings’ next possession, the pass tipping off cornerback Don Griffin’s hands and into Carter’s, set up another Nelson field goal.
“Today he came down with some great plays; we were all amazed,” Griffin said. “He’s just an athlete, man.”
It’s the same vernacular the rest of the league uses for San Francisco’s Rice.
“All Wade Wilson had to do was through the ball high and in bounds,” said Tim McKyer, the 49ers’ other cornerback. “Just throw it in bounds and let him do the rest.”
McKyer and Griffin had the best seats in the house for Carter-watching.
And Carter didn’t only beat the 49er with his hands.
In the third quarter, Carter ran 30 yards on a reverse down to the 49er 22-yard line, setting up a 5-yard scoring pass from Wilson to Hassan Jones to make it 27-10 with 10:15 left in the third quarter.
When the Vikings needed a big catch, Carter made it. When the 49ers least needed their back broken, Carter broke it anyway.
When Young replaced Montana in the third quarter, it seemed as if the 49ers were charged with new batteries.
Young’s first pass went 31 yards to Roger Craig down to the Vikings’ 4-yard line.
Soon, it was Young scrambling left and running five yards for a touchdown, cutting the lead to 27-17 with four minutes left in the third quarter.
But on the next series, Wilson went again to Carter, who leaped over McKyer for a 40-yard catch down to the 49er 25-yard line.
Three plays later, a 40-yard Nelson field goal made it 30-17.
The 49ers, scrambling to make a game of it, took one more desperate stab at the lead late in the third quarter.
But on fourth down at the Viking 31, Walsh elected to try a field goal from 48 yards rather than go for the first down.
The problem was, and Walsh certainly knew it, was that kicker Ray Wersching had made only 3 of 7 field goals attempts between the 40- and 50-yard lines this season.
Not surprisingly, Wersching’s kick fell well short.
The Vikings countered again with Nelson on the next possession, and he kicked the third of his four field goals to essentially put the game away, giving the Vikings a 33-17 lead with 11:39 left.
Perhaps even more surprising than the 49ers’ decision not to double cover Carter all afternoon was the shutdown of the Jerry Rice machine.
Rice made his first reception, a 13-yarder, with 1:08 left in the first half.
Millard, Viking defensive tackle, said the pass rush took Rice out of the game.
“To stop Rice you’ve got to stop Montana,” Millard said. “It’s simple: No Montana, no Rice.”
But Rice was covered even when Montana had time to release the ball.
And for that, the Viking secondary would like some credit.
“When you here a single name all the time, and you know you’ve got to go against him, it backs you against the wall,” Viking cornerback Carl Lee said. “It was like we don’t even exist. It was like impossible. But we did it. He’s a great player, but how do you like our secondary now?”
Lee said the Vikings threw their defensive book at Rice.
“We had him doubled, we had safeties over the top of him, we did a bunch of things,” he said. “We kept changing on him. We wanted to keep everything moving on him so he never got into a rhythm.”