The San Francisco 49ers, those Nanooks of the north (California), cut through frost-biting winds and teeth-chattering reputations to put an end to a few myths and the Chicago Bears on Sunday, winning the National Football Conference title with a chilling, if not thrilling, 28-3 win at Soldier Field.
The team that won the title here did it in the face of 29-m.p.h. winds and temperatures that dipped to a wind-chill factor of minus-26 degrees, freezing the sweat on players’ faces.
“After the first quarter, my feet were frozen,” 49er defensive end Larry Roberts said. “I couldn’t feel my feet.”
And it figured.
The 49ers came east with images as wine tasters of football, admirers of fine food and finesse offense. They lugged some 1,500 pounds of cold-weather equipment to Chicago--rubber-soled shoes, anti-cold creams, bun warmers.
They came east with history’s deck stacked against them. The 49ers hadn’t won a road playoff game in 18 years. No NFC team had won a title on the road since the 1979 season.
But figuring perhaps they were the better team, the 49ers came anyway, and warmed themselves by hurdling through the Chicago defense, trouncing the Bears on their field, in what was supposed to be Bear weather.
“If they’re so tough,” 49er cornerback Tim McKyer was saying afterward, “why did all that happen?”
What happens next is the 49ers, in a rematch of the 1982 Super Bowl, will face the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl Jan. 22 at Miami.
The Miami climate will be welcome.
But even though the 49ers’ feet were most certainly cold Sunday, it didn’t mean they jumped into the game with cold feet.
Ignoring thermometers and numbing limbs, the 49ers stuck to their game plan, the first 25 plays of which were scripted the night before, as always.
Instead of running on a frozen field, which is the conventional wisdom, San Francisco came at the Bears with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. It was wisdom of another kind.
The strategy took the Bears by surprise, and even a few 49ers.
“It shocked me,” Roberts said. “I didn’t expect us to move the ball on offense. I thought it would be a 7-6 game, or 10-9 like last time. But we moved the ball.”
Move it they did, scoring with 3:18 left in the first quarter when Montana fired in the right flat for Rice, who broke free as Bear corner Mike Richardson collided with safety Todd Krumm. Rice raced 61 yards untouched for the touchdown.
“Joe told me the ball might not be right where I wanted it to be, and I would have to make a play on it,” Rice said. “And I did.”
If Montana was having trouble with the wind, it wasn’t apparent. He teamed with Rice again in the second quarter, reading a Chicago blitz and dumping the ball to Rice over the middle.
Montana called this a “hot read,” meaning he was to read the blitz and look for the tight end, John Frank. Frank wasn’t open, but Rice had broken free of cornerback Vestee Jackson, made the catch in open field and then cruised for the touchdown, a 27-yard play. It helped put the 49ers up, 14-0, with 7:25 left in the half, a lead that seemed commanding given the circumstances.
Working in almost unbearable conditions, Montana seemed undaunted by the winds or Bear defense.
Unlike Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon, who wore gloves but lacked any touch, Montana threw with a bare hand and uncanny accuracy.
“It might have been his greatest game, under the conditions,” 49er Coach Bill Walsh said.
Afterward, Montana almost shrugged off the conditions and claimed he actually had a “good feel of the ball.”
By the half, he had completed 9 of 15 passes for 199 yards and 2 touchdowns. McMahon struggled. Through the first 30 minutes, he threw for 94 yards, and his one interception, by 49er safety Jeff Fuller, set up San Francisco’s second touchdown.
Montana is a man of few words and little emotion, but the victory obviously was one of the biggest of his storied career. It was a crowning finish to a season in which Montana had outlasted a quarterback controversy with Steve Young and lingering questions about whether he was fit. Walsh had even sent Montana to the bench on occasion this year, citing injuries and fatigue.
“I didn’t feel I was ever hurt,” Montana said. “Bill felt I was, and he has the right to make that decision.”
All that seemed so far away from Soldier Field and Sunday’s victory, but it seemed important to remember there was a time this season when the 49ers were 6-5 and Montana’s career was in trouble.
“We all had something to prove,” Montana said, not wishing to make this a personal vindication. “I never gave up. My wife kept me in line and kept my spirits up.”
Montana’s performance--17-of-27 passing for 288 yards and 3 touchdowns--will be remembered far longer than the one turned in by his offensive line, which kept Montana frost-free most of the day.
The vaunted Bears’ pass rush disappeared into the cone of silence formed around Montana, who was provided enough time to pick the Bears apart.
When the Bears blitzed--and they did often--the 49ers’ line picked up the rusher, exposing Chicago’s cornerbacks to one-on-one coverage against Rice.
It was a defensive strategy unappreciated by the Bears’ Jackson, who claimed he didn’t have the footing to stay with Rice. Does anyone ever?
The Bears’ defense was left reeling. Pro Bowl middle linebacker Mike Singletary, the Bears’ menace of the midway, was seemingly lost in the cold backdrop.
“There was no one around the guy,” Singletary complained about the pass rush. “It makes it very tough. We’re supposed to play like professionals on every down, and it doesn’t make any difference how good of game someone else has, our game should be just as good. . . . If I sound frustrated, I am frustrated. If I sound mad, I am mad.”
San Francisco pushed and picked and pestered the Bears’ defense to no end, taking over after the third-quarter kickoff and marching 78 yards on 13 plays for a touchdown that put the game away.
Rice, who finished with 5 catches for 133 yards and 2 touchdowns, set up the score with a 12-yard reception down to the Bear 5-yard line.
On first down, Montana went for the jugular, floating a lob pass for Rice in the end zone’s right corner. Rice made an outstretched stab at the ball, but it was ruled he didn’t have control when he and the ball hit the ground simultaneously.
After a brief instant-replay stink, Montana calmly set up again and hit Frank for the touchdown, putting the 49ers up, 21-3.
San Francisco used up 5:27 on the drive, though it seemed an eternity for McMahon and the Bears.
Those 49ers who had chased McMahon before claimed he wasn’t the same quarterback Sunday, lacking the mobility to get him out of trouble. McMahon made an appearance in last week’s victory over Philadelphia, but had essentially been out since Oct. 30 with a knee injury.
“They tend to stare at their receivers,” 49er safety Fuller said. “It’s worked for them in the past, partially because he was a better runner then and could get out of the pocket.”
Nose tackle Michael Carter noticed the same thing.
“I know he was uncomfortable out there,” he said of McMahon. “He always had someone chasing him and he could never set up to pass.”
Mike Tomczak, who completed 6 of 12 passes for 55 yards, replaced McMahon in the fourth quarter, the game having long been decided.
The 49ers got their fourth touchdown when Tom Rathman rushed in from 4 yards out with 6:53 left in the game.
All the Bears had to show for the day was a Kevin Butler field goal and some frozen memories.
Rathman, who tried to make light of the weather afterward, claiming he had been well-prepared at Nebraska, soon confessed to the Big Lie.
“It was freezing out there, to tell you the truth,” Rathman said.
Of course, frostbite never hurts as much when you win.
San Francisco owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. said afterward he wasn’t sure whether his coach, Bill Walsh, would retire after the season. “I don’t know,” DeBartolo said. “He might. It’s up to him.” He added that even if Walsh retired, he would remain with the organization in some capacity. “Bill’s got a year on his contract and I’d like him to fulfill it,” DeBartolo said. “But he can coach as long as he likes.”