Tuesday, November 7, 1989

NINERS BURST SAINTS' BUBBLE

By Ric Bucher
San Jose Mercury News

Where once the New Orleans Saints might have rued their first loss to the 49ers this season, now they might want to savor it.

At least after that first meeting, they could count themselves among those who have come close to knocking off the defending Super Bowl champions. Not so Monday night at Candlestick Park, where the banged-up 49ers (8-1) rolled to a 31-13 win and took a three-game lead in the NFC West.

The return of team leaders to the offense and defense apparently spurred the win, which came against a New Orleans team (4-5) that had won three in a row. Quarterback Joe Montana, after a 1 1/2-game absence because of a sprained left knee, had a part in all four San Francisco touchdowns. As a passer, Montana completed 22 of 31 for 302 yards and three touchdowns, two to wide receiver Jerry Rice.

Rice raised his career totals to 64 touchdowns and 60 TD receptions, both team records. He entered the game tied with running back Roger Craig for the first record and one behind Gene Washington in the second category.

There was nothing historic about Montana's performance -- just one more impressive outing. The grace note was his 3- yard touchdown run -- followed by an uncharacteristically vehement spike -- midway through the fourth quarter to close the scoring.

''What you saw was classic Joe Montana," said left guard Guy McIntyre.

Center Jesse Sapolu said: "He was the same cool Joe."

Coach George Seifert added: "Joe is an extremely poised and experienced quarterback. He can come in after being out and play the way he did."

Ditto all the plaudits for safety Ronnie Lott, who made his first start in five games. Lott, who has been out because of torn ankle ligaments, looked more like a college freshman than a nine-year pro in the pre-game introduction. He sprinted out and jumped on top of a crowd of teammates.

''It's very emotional for me to get out there and release energy and play hard and be out there with the guys again," he said.

Even with Lott and Montana returning, there was some uncertainty about how well the Niners might fare against a Saints team that needed a victory to stay in the NFC West race.

The Saints' previous loss had occurred Oct. 8, when the 49ers used a 14-3 fourth-quarter scoring edge to rally past the Saints 24-20. Monday night the 14-3 bulge came in the second quarter, setting up a 21-10 halftime lead and ending any intrigue.

''We took the wind out of them early," Montana said. "They are the type of team -- at this point in their season -- that if you let them stay in the game, that really encourages them."

It turned out to be very discouraging.

'That was a real butt kicking tonight," said Saints Coach Jim Mora. "It's a real combination of them being on their game and us not playing well at all." Before leaving the subject of past accomplishments gaining flavor, maybe the Los Angeles Rams' 13-12 win over the Niners deserves mention. It stands as their only loss this season, despite a starting lineup that injuries have kept in constant flux.

The Rams also are the team next to the Niners in the NFC West standings -- using the definition of "next" loosely.

If the injuries-wins trend were to continue to its extreme, the Niners would be starting their developmental squad and beating teams by 60 points.

''We have to concentrate on being the best team on any given Sunday," Seifert said. "All wins are fun, but we have to try to not gloat about it."

The memory of that one loss, however, may be enough to keep the Niners focused.

''I remember sitting here, listening to the Rams whooping it up in the hallway," said defensive back Eric Wright, who had an interception that snuffed the Saints' final drive. He also did a full body stretch to tip away a pass in the end zone in the second quarter. It forced the Saints to settle for a 39- yard field goal by Morten Andersen and allowed the Niners to maintain a 14-10 lead.

Andersen added a 23-yarder in the third quarter, but Mike Cofer matched it, point-wise, with a 44-yard field goal that re-established the Niners' 11-point lead entering the final quarter.

''It got to the second half and they made plays," said running back Dalton Hilliard, whose 1-yard run in the first quarter accounted for the Saints' only touchdown. "We didn't make plays."

Not the kind that they had been making to average nearly 30 points and more than five sacks in their previous three games.

The 49ers stopped New Orleans' vaunted pass rush with a combination of quick flare passes and possibly the offensive line's best performance of the season. The only time a Saints defender noticeably knocked Montana to the ground was when he dived into the end zone for his touchdown.

''We were very aware they had 17 sacks (in their previous three games) coming in and I think we were ready for that," Sapolu said. "People were writing us (the offensive line) off four weeks ago, but we're better. We've kept our composure and kept plugging, and this is what we have to show for it."

That being, in part, their eighth win -- and forcing other teams to be happy with coming close.