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Eye-catching The 49ers capped a wild, wild wild-card weekend--replete with a stunning upset, spectacular slip-ups and a rampaging rookie--with some last-gasp heroics

He stepped back with the ball, tripped over a teammate's foot
and started giving in to gravity, and for a split second San
Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young felt his stomach drop
and his heart stop. I'm going down, he thought as the last
seconds of the Niners' made-for-tabloid-TV season ticked away
and the horror of another playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers
began to sink in. In front of 66,506 fans at 3Com Park, the
49ers had battled the Packers as hard as they could, yet for the
fourth consecutive postseason they appeared to have fallen short
against their bitter rivals. Once Young hit the turf, it would
mark San Francisco's most frustrating flop.

Then, in a flash, Young did what the 49ers do when all hell
breaks loose--he steadied himself and stood tall. Staring at a
seam the width of a broom closet between four Green Bay
defenders, Young, the most accurate passer in NFL history, set
his feet and made the throw of his life. The ball zoomed down
the middle of the field toward the goal line, where it ended up
in the hands of wideout Terrell Owens, who until that point had
handled Young's passes as if they had been packages from the
Unabomber. Owens held on to this 25-yard strike with three
seconds remaining, even after absorbing brutal hits from
safeties Pat Terrell and Darren Sharper, and a sea of red surged
onto the field to celebrate perhaps the most emotional wild-card
victory in history. By a 30-27 margin the Niners had settled a
score and so much more.

Suddenly, in a season marked by front-office turmoil,
owner-in-exile Eddie DeBartolo's legal troubles, questions about
second-year coach Steve Mariucci's job security and a
devastating leg injury to star defensive tackle Bryant Young,
all was well with the 49ers. The victory propelled San Francisco
into a divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome on Saturday
against the Atlanta Falcons and broke a mental stranglehold by
the Packers that had spanned five defeats over four seasons. As
Steve Young said upon leaving 3Com long after Sunday's game, "If
we'd lost to them again, it would have become a monster. When
you put this in the context of all the difficulties this
organization has faced and the crap our coach has had to put up
with the past few weeks--heck, the past two years--it's an
incredible triumph."

Incredible even by the standards of the 49ers, who have had more
than their share of triumphant moments. Their rise to prominence
began 17 years ago when Joe Montana rolled right and Dwight
Clark soared to make the Catch, propelling San Francisco past
the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. The Niners won
the first of their five Super Bowls that season and went on to
produce the longest run of sustained excellence that the NFL has
known. On Sunday, five weeks after Clark extricated himself from
San Francisco's front office to become the director of football
operations of the expansion Cleveland Browns, Owens made the
Redemption Reception. Now it's the Packers, NFC champions the
past two seasons, who face an uncertain future, as coach Mike
Holmgren mulls offers from teams hoping to hire him as a general

"They've been running their mouths for a long time, but now it's
time for the Packers to eat some humble pie," strong safety Tim
McDonald crowed after the game. Pressed for specifics, McDonald
cited two examples: A Green Bay assistant coach allegedly was
overheard referring to the Niners as the Pack's "perennial
bitch" following the Packers' 36-22 victory at Lambeau Field on
Nov. 1. Then there was Green Bay All-Pro strong safety LeRoy
Butler's remarkably prescient statement before Green Bay's
January 1997 playoff triumph, which triggered Niners coach
George Seifert's departure: "You'll see Mayflower trucks backed
up at that place. Some asses will be out of there." The latter
remark in particular had stuck in the craw of McDonald, a
12-year veteran not disposed to verbal outbursts. "Now I guess
they can see what it's like when the moving vans pull up," he
said. "I like LeRoy, and he's a hell of a player, but let those
guys see how tough it is when jobs are on the line, everyone's
gunning for you and you're fighting to maintain that standard."

Last Friday night, at a Mexican restaurant near the 49ers' Santa
Clara training facility, McDonald expressed a similar sentiment:
"The standard around here is incredibly demanding. It's
something all of us feel, and that's a lot of pressure." A
waiter approached, and McDonald ordered an off-the-menu entree:
chicken enchiladas with a spicy cream sauce, along with rice and
beans. "This can be one of the most remarkable seasons ever in
sports, for us to win it all in the face of all the adversity
and confusion. We need to get up on them early and feed off that
because for some reason--maybe because of all we've been
through--we're a very emotional team."

In the previous five games against the Pack, the Niners had
burst from the blocks like Drew Carey running the 40. The
cumulative first-quarter score was Green Bay 53, San Francisco
6. Each time Holmgren seemed to have the perfect game plan, and
the 49ers' secondary flailed while trying to contain Packers
quarterback Brett Favre and his receivers. "Mental breakdowns
just kill us," McDonald said, his voice rising in anger. "Take
our game in November: First play--first play--Brett throws into
coverage to [Antonio] Freeman, but a few things break down, and
Freeman breaks it for an 80-yard touchdown." The waiter returned
with McDonald's food and placed it on the table. McDonald stared
at it disdainfully. "I've lost my appetite," he said. "Can you
box this up? Maybe my wife will eat it."

McDonald, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, has been playing hungry
all season. Though denied a trip to Honolulu for the third
consecutive year, he may be having his best campaign, even while
playing with a painful rib injury. Since Bryant Young suffered a
compound ankle fracture in the Niners' Nov. 30 victory over the
New York Giants, San Francisco's once-mighty defense has been
held together by chewing gum, twine and McDonald's unmatched
savvy. With 5:43 left in the first quarter on Sunday and the
Pack leading 3-0, McDonald burst through the line and popped
halfback Dorsey Levens. Free safety Merton Hanks swooped in and
swatted the ball free, and defensive end Chris Doleman recovered
it at the Green Bay 19, setting up the first of two touchdown
passes from Steve Young to tight end Greg Clark. In the second
quarter McDonald blitzed Favre and ended a Packers drive by
batting his pass to the turf.

Even while giving up 27 points, the 49ers intercepted Favre
twice and never allowed Green Bay more than a seven-point lead.
The first interception, by linebacker Lee Woodall, came after
Favre was pressured by Charles Haley, a San Francisco star from
1986 to '91 who later won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys but
hadn't played since midway through the 1996 season. Haley's exit
from the Niners was hastened by a string of grotesque incidents,
many of which involved bodily functions, and his surprising
signing the day before the game was akin to Monica Lewinsky's
returning to the White House.

But when Favre got the ball at his own 11 with 4:19 remaining
and the 49ers leading 23-20, it didn't matter who was rushing
the passer for San Francisco--he was going to get a score. The
touchdown came off an audible when Favre read blitz, rolled to
his right and found Freeman with a 15-yard pass, the pair's
second end-zone hookup of the day.

Carried all day by halfback Garrison Hearst, who finished with
128 yards on 22 carries, the Niners' offense now needed Young
and his trio of talented receivers, Owens, Jerry Rice and J.J.
Stokes, to win the game. The situation appeared grim: Young,
shaky from the start, had thrown two interceptions, including a
horrible floater to linebacker George Koonce that had killed a
scoring opportunity late in the first half; Owens had fumbled
away his first reception and had three blatant drops, one in the
end zone and another that would have extended a potential
game-clinching drive; and then, on the final drive, Rice fumbled
after making his only catch of the day. Green Bay recovered the
ball, but an official ruled that Rice was down. Throw in some
poor clock management and a near interception by Packers
cornerback Craig Newsome on the play preceding Owens's
spectacular catch, and the Niners looked more like dust than

The whole stadium inhaled. Mariucci called Three-Jet All-Go, and
four receivers bolted for the end zone. Owens, from the right
slot, faked outside, froze Butler and cut back to the post. Some
Niners couldn't bear to watch; they weren't alone. In a perfect
metaphor for San Francisco's management void, DeBartolo, whose
view of the Catch had been blocked by a police horse, left his
luxury box to go to the bathroom. Either the man is
astonishingly nervous, or when he's got to go, he's really got
to go. Then, bedlam: Owens caught the ball and burst into tears.
Young danced, McDonald dropped to his knees. Gayle Mariucci
bolted from her luxury box and headed toward the field, where
she would eventually hug her husband. And DeBartolo kept right
on peeing. "What, you want me to screw up my prostate?" he said

No one was more relieved than Mariucci, who, despite a 26-8
record, spent the early part of last week worried sick about his
job. "It just beats you down," he conceded last Friday. "It gets
old, constantly defending myself and my team, but that's how it
is around here." Mariucci is under contract through 2001, but
when negotiations for an extension stalled in mid-December,
rumors abounded that Holmgren, a former Niners offensive
coordinator, was in line to take over--especially if the Packers
beat San Francisco again. Worse for Mariucci, there was no one
in the Niners' front office available to quash the speculation.
Acting owner Denise DeBartolo York was in Italy, acting
president Larry Thrailkill was in Tennessee, and DeBartolo, who
in November pleaded no contest in Louisiana to a felony charge
of failing to report a serious crime, has been told by NFL
commissioner Paul Tagliabue to remain in the background.

On Monday, Mariucci finally got his vote of confidence. Reached
at his Brentwood, Tenn., law office, Thrailkill said, "Steve
Mariucci is our football coach. We're not looking for anybody
else to coach our team, and the game on Sunday had nothing to do
with that."

The moving vans, for now, will have to go elsewhere.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Steve Young throwing football--T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER A CATCH FOR THE AGES Despite being surrounded, Terrell Owens found a crease in the Green Bay defense, and Steve Young delivered the decisive strike with three seconds to play. [Terrell Owens catching football in game]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER MIXED RESULTS Favre threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns, but the Niners pressured him into tossing two interceptions. [Brett Favre in game]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER UPON FURTHER REVIEW The Packers would be heading to Atlanta if officials hadn't blown the call on a final-drive fumble by Rice. [Jerry Rice fumbling football in game]

COLOR PHOTO: LOU DEMATTEIS/REUTERS CRUNCH TIME Owens had the drops all day but hung on when it mattered most, even after absorbing shots from Terrell (40) and Sharper. [Terrell Owens catching football in game]

"Now it's time for the Packers to eat some humble pie," said

"It gets old, constantly defending myself and my team," said
Mariucci, "but that's how it is around here."