Sunday, December 20, 1992

NINERS SWEAT OUT VICTORY

Associated Press

The blowout never materialized, and neither did Joe Montana.

Coming in as 20-point favorites, the San Francisco 49ers struggled to a 21-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday. Though the win wasn't pretty, it was just what the 49ers (13-2) needed to clinch their sixth National Football Conference West title in seven years and the home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs.

"If we'd have gone out there and beat them 40-0, we'd have thought we were world champions before we even got to the Super Bowl," 49ers tackle Steve Wallace said. "Now we know we have work to do. But we have to feel good about still getting the win out of it."

Steve Young, Montana's stand-in for the past two seasons, threw for all three of San Francisco's touchdowns. He had two scoring passes to Jerry Rice and one to John Taylor as the 49ers, after missing the playoffs last season, return as the top seed in the NFC this year.

"To have won the game says something about our club," fullback Tom Rathman said. "Clinching the division and the home-field advantage, that's a plus. But we need to get better, no question about it."

Montana, activated Friday after spending nearly all of the past two seasons on injured reserve with elbow problems, watched from the sidelines as the club's third, or "emergency" quarterback. There had been a chance he could see his first action in nearly two years if the 49ers had taken a big lead, but the game was tight all the way and Young played throughout.

With Tampa trailing by seven, the Bucs were in position to tie it up again after a 12-yard run by Reggie Cobb gave them a first and goal at the San Francisco 3 with five minutes remaining. But Cobb then lost 4 yards on a sweep and Testaverde threw three incompletions.

Tampa Bay (4-11) got the ball back at its 37 with just under a minute left and moved to the San Francisco 35 on three completions. But Testaverde's desperation pass on the final play was batted down in the end zone by Dana Hall.

"We played them right down to the wire," Tampa coach Sam Wyche said. "That was a whale of a football game, and it took everything they had to win the game."

The Bucs used a 15-play, 80-yard drive ending in Cobb's 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down with 14 minutes 7 seconds remaining to tie the game at 14-14.

But the 49ers quickly went back in front as Young threw his third TD pass of the day and second to Rice. He again beat single coverage by Ricky Reynolds for a 30-yard score with 11:24 left that stood up as the winner.

"This was a time to measure our performance," said Cobb, who rushed for 90 yards on 21 carries. "We want to finish strong, and we played well against one of the best teams in the league. . . . When we get our rhythm going, we can play with anybody."

Young's second scoring pass, a 32-yarder to Rice, gave San Francisco its first lead at 14-7 with 10:59 remaining in the third quarter. Rice got a step on Reynolds, and Young threaded a pass to him in the corner of the end zone.

Young finished with 270 passing yards, completing 18 of 31 throws. Rice caught seven for 118 yards.

"This year was awesome. As far as our regular season goal - we accomplished it," Young said. "Now the playoffs will be like scaling a mountain, and we're going to try to reach the summit."

Young added he wasn't threatened by the activation of Montana. "I think Joe's return is great. I was inspired," he said.

Tampa Bay took San Francisco by surprise with a first-quarter flea flicker to go up 7-0 before Young threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Taylor and the teams settled for a 7-7 tie at halftime.

On San Francisco's final second-quarter possession, Young moved the club to the Tampa Bay 5 but fumbled when sacked by Mark Duckens and Keith McCants recovered to stop the threat.

Tampa Bay's trick play began as a run to Gary Anderson, who started off tackle and then abruptly tossed the ball back to Testaverde. Hall had come up to play the run, leaving Anthony McDowell all alone down field. Testaverde hit him for a 51-yard scoring play.