Pro Football / Bob Oates : NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: 49ERS 28, BEARS 3 : Bengals Seem to Lack 49ers’ Knockout Punch

This seemed to be the principal difference between the two winners of Sunday’s Super Bowl semifinals:

--The Cincinnati Bengals had a hard time putting Buffalo away even after injuries to All-Pro end Bruce Smith and other defensive stars took the Bills out of the game. Leading by 4 points at the half, Cincinnati needed a goal-line penalty in the third quarter to win, 21-10.

--The San Francisco 49ers, leading by 11 points after the first 30 minutes here in biting, 17-degree temperature, drove 78 yards after the second-half kickoff to put the Bears away by a score that eventually reached 28-3.

At Cincinnati, the Bengals hung in and won. You have to give them some credit for that. On icy Soldier Field, the 49ers knocked the home team out. That was more impressive--a lot more.


Somehow, Joe Montana, the 49er quarterback, and Jerry Rice, his greatly gifted flanker, made this winter wonderland look like a California beach.

Transcending the elements on a day when the wind-chill factor was minus-26 degrees, the firm of Montana and Rice could hardly have played more artistically anywhere--particularly on the game-winning touchdown plays of the 14-3 first half.

By contrast, the Bengals labored at home against a Buffalo team crippled by injuries to five of its six best defensive players--Smith, Shane Conlan, Mark Kelso, Ray Bentley and Derrick Burroughs.

The conclusion is that Super Bowl XXIII in Miami Jan. 22 will be a replay of Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, Mich., where the 49ers turned back the Bengals, 26-21.

On the five plays that broke Bear Coach Mike Ditka’s heart, Montana passed to Rice for 133 yards in front of a hardy but disappointed crowd of 64,830.

This was the Montana of his first two Super Bowls, in each of which he was the most valuable player--before he hurt his back.

He has now come, as he said, all the way back.

People who haven’t had serious back problems can’t relate, perhaps, to the fear that has plagued Montana most of the time since his operation nearly 3 years ago.

Even though he has played well, by the standards of other quarterbacks, he hasn’t played as well as he thought he should until lately.

In football, fear is a mighty neutralizer, and Montana, understandably, was in what could be called a slump.

He has now been hit often enough to dispel his fears. He no longer worries about the back. He is now the old Montana again.

As for Jerry Rice, he’s the one who makes the Montana-Rice combination a contender for the National Football League’s best of all time.

In terms of NFL history, Rice is a different kind of receiver. He doesn’t have the go-away speed of Hall of Famers Elroy Hirsch and Lance Alworth. Nor is he the quickest receiver of even his own time.

But his huge hands make him a threat in any kind of weather, most noticeably sub-zero, chill-factor weather. And his explosiveness, whenever he feels it’s time to accelerate, makes him unique.

“The most valuable quality in a receiver is the ability to explode through the cushion,” 49er Coach Bill Walsh said. “And that’s what Jerry has.”

The cushion, in a coach’s vocabulary, is the yardage that a good cornerback likes to keep between himself and a good receiver--3 to 7 yards, depending on the circumstance.

On Rice’s winning plays Sunday, he exploded through the cushions of, first, Bear cornerback Mike Richardson, then cornerback Vestee Jackson.

After that, the touchdowns, and the victory, came easily.

In this era of parity, what makes the 49er coach a bigger winner than Ditka or any other NFL rival in the 1980s?

One answer is that Walsh takes a very big view of football.

Although he is best known for his creativity, he doesn’t lose himself in X’s and O’s.

He is also a modern administrator. He knows how to build a sound organization in a highly competitive field. He relates positively to his players. And he controls every aspect of the 49er show, from the draft to defensive philosophy.

What is his defensive philosophy?

Play tough.

One example of Walsh football was on view almost every time that halfback Roger Craig or fullback Tom Rathman headed toward the Bears in a stadium where they gained a combined 104 yards.

They were usually running the old Green Bay power sweep, the play that used to be a Vince Lombardi lecture topic through an 8-hour day at football clinics.

Lombardi often talked exclusively on this play for 4 hours before lunch, and another 4 hours afterward.

Walsh reasons that if it was good enough for all that, it must still be an effective weapon.

But as it happens, the 49ers are the only NFL team with this play still in their game plans. Not even Green Bay runs it anymore. Except for Walsh, NFL coaches all agree that power sweeps won’t work against modern linebacking.

Ditka, who probably ranks with Walsh and Washington’s Joe Gibbs today in the NFL’s top three, had his team ready this time. But the Bears didn’t play with the intensity they used to show before Ditka’s heart attack 3 months ago.

His sideline outbursts once made the Bears froth. They didn’t have that frenzy Sunday. Ditka may have to find another way.