Monday, December 2, 1991


By Nancy Gay
San Jose Mercury News

You'd expect anything running on so many spare parts to take a while to crank up.

But when backup quarterback Steve Bono threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, guiding the 49ers to a 38-24 NFC West victory over the New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park, they showed again why they're the NFL's best at shifting into gear when it counts.

In playoff race

At 7-6, their furious wild-card chase suddenly looks less futile.

''We've had to overcome a lot of adversity -- having two quarterbacks get hurt, not having Ronnie (Lott) or Roger (Craig)," tackle Steve Wallace said. "We've had so many changes on this team, I guess you'd say we're late starters."

But crafty movers. That was true on the field Sunday, when they scored two touchdowns in the last 96 seconds. And it was true in the wild-card race.

Gained on Giants

The victory meant the 49ers lost no ground to Atlanta (a winner Sunday over Green Bay), gained ground on the New York Giants (an upset loser to Cincinnati) and put themselves in position to surpass Philadelphia if the Eagles lose tonight in Houston.

And consider this: The latest loss by the Saints (9-4), their third in a row, means the 49ers could still -- get this -- win the division. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

''We're finally getting it all together. So how can we not think about the playoffs?" Wallace said. "That's what always pushes us this time of year."

They're calling it the Drive to Stay Alive.

''When it gets to this point in the season we always come together and make it happen," fullback Harry Sydney said.

He's right. Since 1981, the 49ers have been 41-9 in their final five games. Last week's victory over the Los Angeles Rams was the start. Sunday's balanced, precision effort against the once-impressive Saints was Step 2.

To get there, the 49ers took advantage of a pair of New Orleans errors to score twice in the last two minutes.

With the score tied at 24, Saints punter Tommy Barnhardt shanked one out of bounds for 16 yards, giving the 49ers the ball at their 43-yard line.

Bono threw a 10-yard slant pass to fullback Keith Henderson (seven catches, 71 yards), then aimed past a Saints blitz at Jerry Rice (nine catches, 154 yards), who snaked around John Taylor's block on cornerback Reginald Jones for a 47-yard touchdown with 1:36 remaining.

''They were in a blitz and we happened to catch them with the right call," said 49ers Coach George Seifert, who planned for such an attack by the NFL's No. 2-rated defense.

Five plays later, Saints backup quarterback Steve Walsh (25 of 42, 317 yards, two touchdowns) fumbled a snap at the 50. Safety Johnnie Jackson scooped up the ball at the Saints' 49- yard line and lumbered down the left sideline until New Orleans fullback Buford Jordan caught him at the 1.

With eight seconds remaining. the 49ers considered sitting on the ball, until injured quarterback/signal caller Joe Montana reminded them that points can settle playoff tie- breakers. Fullback Tom Rathman added them with his vault into the end zone with four seconds remaining.

''It was good to see us go for it because of what happened before," said Rathman, whose fourth-and-one touchdown run earlier in the quarter was disallowed when replay officials ruled he had been downed short of the goal line.

''Their defense was taunting us, daring us to go for it on that play," Rathman said of the non-touchdown. "We didn't get it, but it showed we weren't afraid to try."

That pretty much summed up the game plan -- take chances, throw deep and rise to the occasion against a shaky team that had been one victory (and a Falcons' loss) short of clinching the division.

''We talked about how New Orleans would swell up and come together," said Seifert, whose team lost 10-3 to New Orleans on Nov. 10, in Bono's debut. "They had a couple of chances where they thought they were going to win the game. But we swelled up, too, and it turned out to be a great win for us."

The Saints came back from a 17-10 third-quarter deficit for a 24-17 lead on a 12-yard Fred McAfee touchdown run and a three-yard scoring pass to Vernon Turner, set up by a 49ers turnover. Punter Joe Prokop's awkward effort to elude a rush on fourth down at the 49ers' 24 resulted in a fumble, recovered by the Saints' James Williams at the 14-yard line.

But the 49ers answered with their first successful comeback effort of the season. Starting at the 49ers' 45-yard line, Bono -- who completed 27 of 41 passes -- directed a five-play drive capped by his 11-yard scoring pass to Dexter Carter to tie the score 24-24.

''We needed to get the ball into the end zone and it crossed my mind that if we didn't, things wouldn't be too good around here," said Bono, now 3-1 as the starter since filling in for the injured Steve Young.

After a scoreless first quarter, the 49ers took the lead when Bill Romanowski's fumble recovery set up Bono's 19-yard scoring pass to John Taylor (five catches, 62 yards) with 9:16 remaining in the second quarter.

Walsh's five-yard touchdown pass to Turner tied the score with 3:08 left before halftime. But Carter broke loose on the ensuing kickoff for a 98-yard return for a 14-7 49ers' advantage. Morten Andersen kicked a 52-yard field goal two seconds before the break to make it 14-10, 49ers.

Bono's 52-yard pass to Rice on the opening play of the third quarter set up Mike Cofer's 42-yard field goal for a 17-10 49ers' lead with 12:12 left in the third quarter.