Monday, December 31, 1990

KNACK IS BACK FOR NINERS

By Ric Bucher
San Jose Mercury News

Few meaningless games have been celebrated with as much joy and relief as the 49ers' 20-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

After wide receiver John Taylor ran into the end zone on a 34-yard reception to give the Niners another last-minute comeback victory and their second consecutive 14-2 season, he was mobbed by teammates, who were still laughing with relief when they headed for the plane taking them back to the Bay Area.

"To win," said quarterback Steve Young, who played the second half, "was a huge good feeling."

Had the Niners lost, it would have meant entering the playoffs with a two-game losing streak and the end of several winning streaks -- on the road (now at 19, including playoffs but not Super Bowls), on artificial surface (16, including last January's Super Bowl), in domed stadiums (nine, including the Super Bowl) and, of course, against the Vikings (four).

''We had just as much on the line as if we were playing in a playoff game," said linebacker Charles Haley, "because we're still playing for respect throughout the league. All we get is that we're a finesse team that somehow finds a way to win. When it comes time to be tough, we can be tough."

Had they lost, it also would have meant answering umpteen questions -- posed by themselves as well as reporters -- about the team's confidence, solidity and weaknesses over the two weeks of preparation for their first-round game, which will be at Candlestick Park on Jan. 12 or 13 against Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans or Dallas.

Some questions remain

''Those are the kind of questions we can avoid now by winning," Young said.

Maybe -- or maybe those questions still will crop up, given that it was Young who made the offense click, not Joe Montana. And Montana, who completed 10 of 20 passes for 88 yards and no points in the first half, will be the starter in the playoffs.

But it wasn't merely Montana's fault that the Niners found themselves behind 10-0 at halftime, having never even ventured into Vikings territory. The offensive line allowed him to be sacked twice and have two passes tipped at the line, and it allowed him to be harried on at least a half-dozen other occasions. His receivers didn't do him any favors, either. Running back Dexter Carter, for example, dropped a ball that bounced off his chest.

Vikings are nobody's patsies

''We didn't hit everything we tried, but then neither did they," said left guard Guy McIntyre. "I expected it to go down to the end at the beginning. Because even though they've had a rough year, they're still a good team. . . . They were doing all the things they needed to, to win."

Especially in the first half. The combination of running back Herschel Walker (13 carries, 63 yards for the game) bowling over tacklers like the Walker of old, quarterback Rich Gannon finding wide receiver Anthony Carter (four catches for 37 yards in the first half) on intermediate routes and the most imaginative offensive game plan in some time enabled the Vikings to squeeze out a first-quarter 34-yard field goal by Fuad Reveiz and a 9-yard TD by Walker.

But the first half seemed like ancient history after Mike Cofer's two field goals (29 and 35 yards), a 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jerry Rice and the closer to Taylor with 29 seconds left.

''We won, and that's the most important thing," said tackle Steve Wallace. "It doesn't matter how we won."

Haley pointed to the similarities between the Vikings and one of the Niners' potential playoff foes, the Eagles.

''We don't know who we're going to play," he said, "but if we play Philly, it's great that we played this defensive line because they're similar, and it's great from the defensive line's standpoint to play against a quarterback like this that's going to run around and make plays."

Linebacker Matt Millen found another reason to savor the comeback.

''I'll tell you what was an excellent sign," he said, "is that we spotted them 10 and played flat, and then we came out and stuffed them in the third quarter and a large majority of the fourth quarter. What was also excellent to see was John Taylor hit that other gear, which we haven't seen because of his knee."

Knee ailment not evident

Taylor, who leaped to catch Young's pass over the middle at the Vikings' 15 and went into the end zone untouched, has been bothered by a sprained knee since the Niners' Oct. 21 game against Pittsburgh.

''The way he ran with the football looked like he was almost 100 percent again," Rice said.

The TD also had inspirational value for Young, who couldn't rally the Niners last week in a 13-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Young completed 6 of 7 for 88 yards on Sunday's final drive, which began at the Niners' 20.

''That's the kind of thing . . . it makes a difference," Young said. "To be a good quarterback, you have to do that. Joe's obviously been spectacular at it for years, and it's something I just hope has rubbed off."

That added touch

His TD pass to Rice wore some of Montana's trademarks as well. Young, standing in a collapsing pocket, threw a spiral that grazed the outstretched finger tips of cornerback Carl Lee before landing in Rice's hands, giving the Niners their first lead, 13-10, with 8:37 left to play.

''I let that go and just hoped that it was far enough," Young said.

The Vikings showed their mettle with a 78-yard drive, completed by Alfred Anderson's 1-yard dive, to regain the lead, 17-13.

''I think this game epitomizes our whole season. We had our chances and could not stop them," Vikings Coach Jerry Burns was quoted as stating after the game. ''The way we played in the first half exposed every weakness we have," said tackle Bubba Paris. "But the fact that we came back to win reflects the personality this team has developed. I think it's a special team."