Monday, November 18, 1991

CARDS' RALLY COMES UP SHORT

By Nancy Gay
San Jose Mercury News

At times Sunday, the slopfest out at soggy Candlestick Park vaguely resembled an authentic NFL game. However, if you switched channels or headed out to the car before the final two minutes, you probably missed it.

There was intrigue with 40 seconds remaining when the lifeless Phoenix Cardinals tried three times to pass for a go- ahead touchdown from the 49ers' 19-yard line. There was elation for the 49ers when the last throw by Stan Gelbaugh was batted away in the corner of the end zone.

More than anything, there was sheer relief when the 49ers sneaked away with a 14-10 victory, their first triumph in their past three games.

''It would have been a little bit more enjoyable if it hadn't come down to the last play," fullback Tom Rathman said.

Not that anybody really expected a replay of the 1981 NFC title game or anything, given that this matchup featured two third-string quarterbacks -- Gelbaugh and Steve Bono -- slugging it out for teams with four victories apiece. Dreary weather and general lack of interest combined to keep 16,061 ticket-holders from their paid seats.

But the 49ers took what may be their last shot at a confidence-building blowout victory and merely parlayed it into an escape.

''People probably will say that we should have beaten them by a lot more," said 49ers linebacker Bill Romanowski, "but we got the win. Maybe it didn't look good at the end, but we got the win."

Said Rathman, "It's tough to accept a game like this and a win like this when you know that you're the better team."

Suffice to say, they weren't exactly breaking out the bubbly in the subdued 49ers locker room.

''No. It was just like, OK, we got lucky," said wide receiver Jerry Rice, fuming over his three-catch, 30-yard afternoon. "We didn't win. We got lucky." The 49ers improved their record to 5-6, enough to keep the phrases "wild card" and "playoffs" in their vocabularies.

But, "the last thing on my mind is the playoffs," 49ers Coach George Seifert continues to insist.

49ers were backed up

Who can blame him, considering the backed-up position the 49ers found themselves in with three minutes remaining?

After the Cardinals downed Rich Camarillo's punt at the 3- yard line, Bono -- subbing the second week in a row for the injured Steve Young -- ran for 2 yards on a draw, then fumbled a handoff to fullback Keith Henderson.

Luck, for a change, favored the 49ers when guard Guy McIntyre recovered the ball at the 4. One incompletion later, though, it was time to punt.

That helped give the Cardinals (4-8) good field position at the 49ers' 41 with 2 minutes, 13 seconds remaining. A 15-yard pass-interference call on cornerback Don Griffin pushed Phoenix to the 26, and a series of short passes moved the Cardinals to the 9 with 47 seconds left.

Cards' last-gasp effort

Holding pushed them back 10 yards to the 19, where former London Monarchs quarterback Gelbaugh twice overthrew receivers in the corners of the end zone. On fourth down, the Cardinals sent two receivers -- Ricky Proehl and Ernie Jones -- to the right corner of the end zone, where safeties Todd Bowles and Dave Waymer were waiting. Gelbaugh launched the pass toward Proehl. The ball grazed Proehl's fingers and was tipped by Waymer. The deflected pass then struck Bowles in the chest, and he batted it out of bounds to preserve the victory.

Two weeks earlier, a Hail Mary end-zone bomb killed the 49ers' chances in Atlanta, 17-14, begging comparisons to Sunday's narrow escape.

''When that ball popped up, my heart just stopped," tight end Brent Jones said. "That's just the way it's gone for us this year."

Bono finished with very blue-collar numbers -- 20 of 35, 187 yards. The 49ers' receivers and tight ends were limited to short, safe crossing routes, with Jones (five catches, 79 yards) the main target.

After a scoreless first quarter, Bono moved the 49ers 80 yards in 17 plays, setting up Henderson's 2-yard touchdown run with 23 seconds remaining before halftime.

Fumble results in field goal

Midway through the third quarter, a fumbled exchange between Bono and center Jesse Sapolu was recovered by Phoenix's Tyrone Stowe at the 49ers' 26. That set up Greg Davis' 35-yard field goal, cutting the 49ers' lead to 7-3 with 2:43 left in the period.

Cornerback Jay Taylor's overzealous coverage on wide receiver Mike Sherrard gave the 49ers their biggest gain of the day -- 33 yards. Ten plays later, on third-and-five at the Phoenix 7, Henderson rumbled 6 yards. Rathman followed with a 1-yard scoring run for a 14-3 49ers lead with 8:54 remaining.

The defense let up enough to allow Gelbaugh (14 of 26, 156 yards) to move the Cardinals quickly downfield. With 6:07 remaining, he threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Ernie Jones, cutting the 49ers' lead to 14-10.