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THE ROAD TO MIAMI: SUPER BOWL XXIII : Montana Again Is a Winner : Quarterback Has Big Day; 49ers Rout Vikings, 34-9

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

A year after suffering his most painful pull outside of a dentist’s office, quarterback Joe Montana was removed from the starting lineup again Sunday, sent to the bench with 8 minutes remaining.

Same place, same playoff opponent, same stakes. But hardly the same ol’ Joe.

This time, the 32-year-old Montana left as conquering hero, having played a game with the hunger of a man who hadn’t thrown a playoff touchdown pass in 4 years.

In fact, Montana hadn’t.

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But those ghosts, along with others, were finally purged from the souls of the San Francisco 49ers, who snapped a 3-year, first-game playoff losing streak with a 34-9 win over the Minnesota Vikings to advance to next week’s NFC title game against the Chicago Bears.

Montana, who would throw his first postseason scoring pass since Super Bowl XIX, played brilliantly early and made it stand up. Montana finished with scoring passes of 2, 4 and 11 yards--all to receiver Jerry Rice, all in the first half.

A more complete reversal of last season’s loss to the Vikings is difficult to imagine.

It was here at Candlestick Park that Montana was breaded and deep fried in a playoff loss a season ago, a humbling performance that led to his second-half benching and the dawning of a new-age quarterback controversy with Steve Young.

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Sunday, before a crowd of 61,848, Montana left the game only after his work was done, his good name and a game’s outcome having long been satisfied.

And it’s not that the 49ers were sensitive about their little run of bad luck in the playoffs.

“The past 3 years have been glorious years,” Coach Bill Walsh said, responding to a pointed question afterward. “I don’t know where you’re from. We’ve been to the playoffs every year. We haven’t won the Super Bowl in 4 years. People will look at the negative side about that. But what other team has done more than we have? We have no apologies for anyone.”

Especially not after Sunday, when the 49ers reversed virtually every trend from last season’s Vikings loss.

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None was more important than the elimination of Anthony Carter from the Vikings’ game plan. Last time, Carter cut through the 49er secondary for a playoff-record 227 yards with 10 catches. Sunday, Carter did not have ball thrown his direction in the first half.

He made his first catch with 13:21 left in the third quarter and finished with 3 catches for 45 yards. Viking quarterback Wade Wilson threw Carter’s way just 5 times all day.

Cornerback Tim McKyer, who admitted he and the boys did a pretty nice double-coverage blanket job on Carter, still couldn’t believe the Vikings didn’t take a chance on their home-run king.

“I don’t know what their game plan was,” McKyer said. “But I know if I was the coach, I would throw him the ball.”

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The 49ers, for example, don’t seem to mind how many people are covering Rice. Great receivers make great catches, they figure.

Carter, of course, has been through this before with his coaching staff and wasn’t pleased with his snubbing Sunday.

Viking Coach Jerry Burns said the 49ers’ heavy pass rush and double coverage took Carter out of the game.

“They didn’t do anything differently,” Burns snapped later. “They just did it a hell of a lot better.”

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Carter basically said that Burns took him out of the game. And for Carter, those lonely pass routes were tough pills to swallow.

Double coverage?

“That’s not what I saw,” he said. “I saw a lot of zone. They just didn’t call my number.”

Today, Viking coaches can reach Carter at home.

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It was true, though, the 49ers’ defensive front put an excessive amount of heat on Wilson, who sometimes had trouble getting the ball out of his own hand, let alone to his receivers. Wilson was sacked 6 times on the day for minus-47 yards.

“Even if we didn’t sack him today, we wanted to be in his face and get a hand up,” 49er defensive end Larry Roberts said. “By keeping a lot of pressure on Wilson and playing AC (Carter) up tight, we knew we pretty much had them where we wanted them.”

And that, of course, was in trouble.

On the flip side, San Francisco’s offensive line protected Montana well, much better than last season when the Vikings sacked him 4 times. Sunday, Montana was sacked once.

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Against the likes of Keith Millard and Chris Doleman and the rest of Minnesota’s No. 1-ranked defense, that was big news.

“Our offensive line had a great day,” Montana said.

Defensive tackle Millard, twice called for offsides, grew more frustrated as the day wore on. After Roger Craig’s 4-yard run put the 49ers up, 28-9, with 13:41 left, Millard sauntered over and took a shot at Montana’s jaw.

Montana, certainly not foolish enough to exchange blows, instead wagged his finger at Millard as he ran off the field. Millard, of course, wagged back.

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“It was just the heat-of-the-moment-type thing,” Montana said. “I was just congratulating my offensive line and got an elbow across my face.”

In the end, Millard’s face was stained only with egg.

Montana, whose mobility this season has been hampered by various injuries, seemed strong and sharp Sunday, especially in the first half, when he completed 11 of 14 passes for 111 yards.

Things might have been worse had the Vikings not squandered a nice 6-minute, 12-play drive on their opening drive, settling for a 47-yard Chuck Nelson field goal. Minnesota’s only lead of the day, 3-0, would last just minutes.

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Montana drove the 49ers 48 yards late in the quarter before finding Rice open for a 2-yard scoring pass.

Nine seconds later, 49er safety Ronnie Lott intercepted a Wilson pass intended for Darrin Nelson, returning it 5 yards to the Minnesota 30.

A 21-yard reverse run by Rice took it down to the 9, setting up a 4-yard touchdown pass play, Montana to Rice.

Late in the half, after the 49ers had driven 59 yards down to the 11, Montana faked right and looked left to Rice, who froze Viking corner Reggie Rutland with an inside move. Rice went outside. Touchdown and 21-3.

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The Vikings only made a game of it twice. On their first possession of the third quarter, they finally discovered Carter hit him twice on pass plays of 21 and 14 yards to set up a 5-yard scoring pass from Wilson to Hassan Jones. Nelson missed the extra point, cutting the lead to 21-9.

The play that turned the game came with 2:26 left in the third quarter. Rutland, anticipating a Montana pass to Rice in the left flat, cut in front of the receiver at his own 40 and seemed in perfect position to make the interception and take it 60 yards for a touchdown.

“We both had the ball in our hands,” Rutland said, describing the play. “We came down with it.”

The ball, in fact, went past Rutland’s fingertips into the hands of Rice, who turned it into a 28-yard gain.

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In last season’s game, Rutland took a similar gamble and returned a Montana interception 45 yards for a touchdown.

As Rutland would say, there were many things different about this game.

“It could have went either way,” Rutland said. “In another situation, it might have been different. I’d play it the same way each time. I’d just come down with it each time.”

Instead of a 21-16 game, Rice’s catch set up the touchdown that put the 49ers up, 28-9.

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Roger Craig removed all comeback doubts when he turned a simple pitch into an 80-yard touchdown run with 9:04 left. It was the longest run of Craig’s career and the longest day in recent Viking memory.

“Believe it or not, that run was by design,” Walsh said of Craig’s run. “It broke like we had hoped. But after the first 5 yards, it was all Roger.”

Craig, who had been mostly frustrated until his big run, finished with 135 yards in 21 carries.

Young replaced Montana with 7:46 remaining. Redemption was sweet, Montana would say. And complete.

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