SAN FRANCISCO — Everyone knew the season would come to this, the San Francisco 49ers playing the Rams for the National Football Conference West Division championship on Dec. 27.
That's why they pay National Football League schedule makers the big money, to set up season-ending games such as these.
But perhaps not even Nostradamus would have guessed that one day the 49ers would need to beat the Rams to save themselves--not from the Rams--but from the New Orleans Saints.
"Saints Edge Out 49ers for Title" is a headline you'd expect to read in a supermarket check-out line.
And how about the Rams in their new role as playoff party crashers?
The whole idea has 49er Coach Bill Walsh a little nervous, given the condition of this rivalry, his quarterback, and the Saints, of course.
Joe Montana, who pulled a hamstring muscle two weeks ago against the Chicago Bears, is apparently itching to play. Montana split time in practice this week with Steve Young and has told Walsh that he and Jerry Rice are ready to cook the Ram secondary, minus two starters with Johnnie Johnson and Vince Newsome out with injuries.
But these facts remain: The 49ers need to beat the Rams for the title if the Saints win their game against the Green Bay Packers today.
If the Packers were to pull off an upset, the 49ers would be champions before tonight's kickoff.
It all means that Walsh, no matter what he says, will probably take this Montana-Young decision down to the wire. "I'd like to see him play substantially this game if possible," Walsh said of Montana this week, "Primarily to win it, but also to stay sharp and not lose what touch he had."
Which was considerable. Montana was in the midst of his best season.
But would Walsh really risk Montana if he didn't need to win the game?. Couldn't Montana throw a few balls through an old tire to stay sharp?
Ram Coach John Robinson said he continues to expect the unexpected from Walsh.
Walsh doesn't understand.
"Joe Montana is our quarterback," Walsh said. "He's established there, though Steve has played very well, we're pleased with him. But if we can play Joe, we'll play Joe."
Young, though, certainly is no slouch as a backup. The former Brigham Young University and L.A. Express star stepped in against the Bears and threw four touchdown passes. Last week, in a 35-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons, he threw for two touchdowns, both to Rice, and ran for another.
With Young at quarterback, even Walsh can't say for sure what might happen.
"We're a volatile team and not very predictable," Walsh said. "He makes all kinds of things happen, most of them good. Things get almost helter-skelter. He can run, as you know, and if he plays, we'll ask him to run, we won't want him to hesitate . . . we're playing the biggest game of the year, so if takes Steve Young running 10 or 15 times he'll run 10 or 15 times."
Walsh said Young is the best running quarterback he has seen.
"Others have done well, but he is the best because he is so fast and so quick," Walsh said. "And he makes people miss. I'd have to say he's the best I've ever seen. He would have probably been the greatest single-wing tailback to have ever played the game, I'm sure of that."
The Rams, on the other hand, have been sure of little lately. After five straight wins that kept faint wild-card hopes alive, they fell flat out of the race last Monday night with a loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
No one felt worse about the game than the Rams, with the possible exception of the Saints, who needed the Rams to stay healthy and in the race, neither of which the Rams accomplished.
The Saints had hoped the Rams would come steam rolling into Candlestick Park and knock off the 49ers.
The Saints also expected the Rams with Jim Everett at quarterback, not Steve Dils. Everett this week was fitted for a cast to mend a bone chip in his right foot.
Dils, who played under Walsh at Stanford and led the nation in passing efficiency as a senior, promises that the Rams, guaranteed a losing season, have not deemed their season over.
"I think we'll be fired up," he said. "Just because it's the 49ers."