The San Francisco 49ers are fortunate to have two capable backup quarterbacks, but when he's healthy there's no question that Joe Montana is the man.
Montana, returning from a knee injury, passed for three touchdowns and ran for another Monday night to lead the 49ers to a 31-13 victory that gave San Francisco a three-game lead over the Rams in the NFC West.
"Montana played like a man possessed tonight," said Jerry Rice, who caught two touchdown passes.
The touchdowns gave Rice two 49er career records: 60 touchdown receptions, breaking Gene Washington's record of 59, and 64 touchdowns, two more than teammate Roger Craig.
Montana played only one half in his previous three games, not at all since being carried off the field on a stretcher in the second quarter of an Oct. 22 victory over New England at Stanford with a sprained left knee. Steve Young and Steve Bono led the 49ers capably during his absence.
But the NFL's top-rated quarterback quickly dispelled any notion he might be rusty or ailing by completing 16 of 19 passes for 223 yards and the three touchdowns in a brilliant first half, finishing 22 of 31 for 302 yards.
Montana also managed to escape unsacked from the Saints' aggressive defense, which recorded 17 sacks in the previous three weeks.
"Some games you have to scrap and fight for every inch," Montana said. "New Orleans has a very good defense. It wasn't easy, but we did what we had to do."
New Orleans (4-5) fell victim to three Montana touchdown passes for the second time in five weeks. It won three consecutive games in the interim, but this defeat dealt a severe blow to its playoff hopes.
San Francisco, 6-0 on the road but winless at Candlestick Park in its only other game there this season, started fast with impressive touchdown drives of 78 and 85 yards the first two times it had the ball.
Montana passed to Rice for touchdowns of 32 yards and two yards to make it 14-7, the Saints having scored on Dalton Hilliard's one-yard run.
Morten Andersen's first of two field goals, a 39-yarder, cut it to 14-10, but Montana directed a six-play drive of 85 yards in the final two minutes of the half. On a first down from the New Orleans 45, John Taylor took his pass over the middle, broke two tackles and dragged safety Dave Waymer the final four yards, stretching his right hand with the ball into the end zone to make it 21-10.
Andersen and Mike Cofer traded field goals and then Montana capped it with 6:35 left in the game by racing around end for a touchdown to make it 31-13.
Saint quarterback Bobby Hebert completed 20 of 33 passes for 183 yards but had two passes intercepted in the second half.
"That was a pretty good butt-kicking tonight," Saint Coach Jim Mora said. "We didn't cover, we didn't tackle. We looked like we were in a daze on defense."