CINCINNATI — With six seconds left and a six-point lead, Cincinnati Bengald Coach Sam Wyche had three choices. He picked the wrong one.
Rather than punt or take a safety, Wyche chose to try to run out the clock on a fourth-down play deep in Bengal territory and ended up helping the San Francisco 49ers to a 27-26 victory Sunday.
Wyche's plan backfired as the 49ers stopped running back James Brooks to get the ball with two seconds left. On the ensuing play, 49er wide receiver Jerry Rice caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Joe Montana with no time left.
Rice outjumped rookie cornerback Eric Thomas in the end zone to make his dramatic game-winning catch.
"I really don't blame anybody but me for this game," Wyche said. "We had the game won."
That's the way it appeared when the Bengals took over on their 45-yard line with 54 seconds to play.
Quarterback Boomer Esiason took losses of 2, 3 and 5 yards while the 49ers were forced to use up their timeouts. A delay-of-game penalty moved the Bengals back five more yards, giving them a fourth and 25 at their 30 with 6 seconds remaining.
Wyche had three choices: punt, have his ball carrier take a safety by running backward into the end zone, or run Brooks on a sweep to try to kill the clock. He chose the last option, fearing a punt could be blocked or a runner stopped short of his own end zone on a safety try.
"With six seconds left, we decided to run the ball on a sweep play that would normally take a full 6-7-8 seconds," Wyche said.
Brooks questioned the decision.
"I thought we should have kicked it or given them two points," he said. "Two points is going to win the game."
It turned into a costly decision when defensive lineman Kevin Fagan ran untouched into the Bengals' backfield to stop Brooks and the clock, giving the 49ers possession at the 25 with two seconds left. The clock automatically stops for each possession change.
At that point, the Bengals made another tactical error to lose the game. Thomas was left covering Rice one-on-one while the other 49er receivers went to the other side of the end zone. Montana saw immediately that Rice would be alone with the rookie, who was burned twice on long passes earlier in the game.
"I looked at him (Rice) and said, 'Hey, get into the end zone,' " Montana said. "Nobody came up to bump him (at the line of scrimmage). There was only one guy playing behind him.
"He was open when he lined up. I couldn't believe it."
Rice easily made the reception as Thomas tried to jump behind him.
"I just went up and got the ball," Rice said. "It was high, I went up high and everything just worked out OK."
The Bengals (1-1) watched in stunned silence as the 49ers flooded the field to celebrate. Esiason said he'd never seen such a turn of events.
"Never, ever, ever, not in my entire career in football," Esiason said. "One minute, your heart's pounding and you're excited. The next, I'm sick to my stomach."
Ray Wersching's extra point with no time left on the clock gave the 49ers (1-1) the victory.
Montana rallied the 49ers from a dismal first quarter, when they managed only 13 total yards on three possessions and failed to complete a pass. Montana, shaking off a three-interception performance in an opening 30-17 loss to Pittsburgh, completed 21 of 37 passes for 250 yards without an interception.
However, it appeared his performance would be wasted until the Bengals stumbled on the fourth-down strategy.
Cincinnati took a 23-20 lead with 8:05 left to play on a 41-yard field goal by Jim Breech. The field goal was set up when Cincinnati safety David Fulcher recovered a Ron Heller fumble.
With 1:54 remaining, Breech added a 46-yarder with 1:54 remaining to give the Bengals a 26-20 lead.
The 49ers then failed to connect on a long fourth-down pass, giving the Bengals control at midfield for their final, unorthodox series.
During the game, there was little fan reaction at Riverfront Stadium to a probable players strike on Tuesday. Instead, the crowd cheered wildly as the Bengals dominated the first half, rolling to a 20-7 lead while smothering the 49ers' offense.
Larry Kinnebrew capped a 13-play, 80-yard drive on Cincinnati's first possession with a 2-yard touchdown run, and then Breech kicked a 23-yard field goal late in the first quarter to conclude an 11-play drive.
Montana got the 49ers on track by burning Thomas with an in-stride 38-yard scoring pass to Mike Wilson in the second quarter. The score gave the 49ers new enthusiasm, but it lasted just five plays.
Esiason beat a 49er blitz by tossing a short pass to tight end Rodney Holman, who who stiff-armed free safety Ronnie Lott and beat strong safety Jeff Fuller to the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown play that visibly deflated the 49ers.
A personal foul on the 49ers' Tory Nixon wiped out a 52-yard punt that pinned the Bengals late in the first half. Max Runager's re-kick went only 35 yards. Cincinnati took advantage of its midfield position by driving to a 42-yard field goal by Breech with 2 seconds left in the half.
As much as the Bengals controlled the first quarter, the 49ers controlled the third to pull even.
Montana passed to Rice for a 34-yard touchdown pass play to pull the 49ers within a touchdown early in the quarter. Rice beat Thomas to get open.
On the next series, 49er linebacker Keena Turner made the first interception of an Esiason pass this season to set up a 24-yard field goal by Wersching, which brought the 49ers within 20-17.
Wersching kicked 31-yard field goal with 3:17 left in the third quarter to tie the score, 20-20.