SAN FRANCISCO — Talk was when the 49ers' Joe Montana lined up to shoot it out with Cleveland's Bernie Kosar at Candlestick Park Sunday night that it might be a preview of the Super Bowl.
No way. When was the last time a Super Bowl lived up to its hype?
It was a two-way fireworks spectacular, at least until Kosar ran out of ammunition and Montana, hitting Jerry Rice on three of his four touchdown passes, went on to lead the 49ers to a 38-24 victory in a match of division leaders.
If it's running you want, go watch a 10K. These teams gave the 60,248 spectators the National Football League's ritualistic treatment of establishing a ground game or keeping the defense honest or whatever excuses teams give for doing it the hard way.
But it was so ineffective that Montana also was the game's leading rusher , with 43 yards on 4 attempts.
Not that any of them were his idea. He kept calling pass plays but sometimes, with the Browns' defense giving his receivers so much respect, he just couldn't help himself.
Montana remains a marvel. Not only did he make a remarkable comeback from back surgery last season to help the 49ers win the NFC West, but this season, at 31, with Rice an explosive dimension, he is more resourceful than ever.
If Reagan and Gorbachev can ban nuclear missiles, something ought to be done about Montana and Rice. If that deadly combination ever was going to be shut down it would have been by the Browns, who arrived with the league's leading defense--the "Dawgs." Their two main woofers are Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, who are being called the best pair of cornerbacks in the game.
"I didn't hear any barking out there tonight," Montana said.
Bill Walsh, the 49er coach, said, "I'm sure it was a sobering experience for certain (Cleveland) players."
Rice, collecting 7 passes for 126 yards, was just a red flash in the night as he expanded his league lead in touchdown catches to 14, while Montana, completing 23 of 31 for 342 yards, has now thrown 27 touchdown passes.
Brown Coach Marty Schottenheimer said, "There is a good reason why Montana is rated the best of all time."
Kosar wasn't bad, either. Watching the third-year pro complete 26 of 37 (3 were dropped) for 275 yards and 1 touchdown, one had to keep reminding oneself that the NFL's youngest starting quarterback won't be 24 until Wednesday.
He almost reached the Super Bowl last season before being stopped in a heartbreaking AFC title loss to Denver. If Cleveland and San Francisco don't make it to San Diego this time, they at least ought to be the halftime show.
The 49ers (9-2) also proved a point as a team. Considering that they held sway in the NFC West only because their strike team--the "Phony-Niners"--was 3-0 and the oncoming New Orleans Saints are only now pressing for division supremacy, this was to be their stiffest test.
Instead, after a modest 21-17 lead at halftime, they ran the Browns (7-4) into the bay with their fifth win in six games since the strike, while the Browns went home still a jump ahead of the field in the AFC Central.
That Cleveland, with the league's highest scoring offense, scored only a field goal and a meaningless touchdown on a fumble return by linebacker David Grayson in the second half was a tribute to the 49er defense, which also had suffered the skeptics.
And there were plenty of those when Kosar took the Browns 53 yards in only 4 plays to a 7-0 lead on their first possession. The score came on a bit of a fluke when Kevin Byner fumbled across the goal line but recovered the ball in the end zone as other players batted it about.
Montana brought the 49ers back just as swiftly, tying the score as he rolled right from the two-yard line to hit Rice running along the goal, extending Rice's streak to at least one scoring catch in nine straight games.
Jeff Jaeger's 28-yard field goal put the Browns back on top, but then it was all Montana and Rice--30 yards on a strike between two defenders at the goal line and 29 on a crossing pattern at the five, leaving safety Al Gross looking helpless.
Montana also had a sentimental interlude with his former favorite, Dwight Clark, who left Dixon five yards behind with an inside fake for a 40-yard touchdown.
Kosar responded with a 21-yard shot to Brian Brennan to keep it momentarily close at 21-17, but that was it. The 49ers put it out of reach with a 38-yard field goal by Ray Wersching, Montana's 29-yard scoring connection with Rice and a 9-yard run by Joe Cribbs.
Brown tight end Ozzie Newsome said, "They maybe caught us off guard in the second half with with four down linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs. That kept us from executing the way we should have."
Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers' owner who lives in Northeastern Ohio, was expansive.
"The Browns are a magnificent team," he said. "I think it will be Seattle and Cleveland in the AFC championship game.
"How good is this (49er) team? As good as it wants to be."