Monday, November 23, 1992


By Nancy Gay
San Jose Mercury News

The 49ers walked away from their final NFC West challenge Sunday with something just as satisfying as their 27-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, their 9-2 record or their sweep of the division.

With the mighty passing attack foundering from the start Sunday at Anaheim Stadium and with penalties killing key plays and drives, the 49ers had a dependable rushing game to pick them up. And this game, perhaps more than any other this season, demonstrated the return of the multi-faceted offense.

Tailback Ricky Watters, who had 163 yards and two touchdowns in 26 carries, delivered a game-breaking, defense-crushing effort.

It was a remarkable performance that was even more impressive considering Watters was suffering from an intestinal virus.

''Yesterday I didn't think I would be able to play," said Watters, who has rushed for 965 yards this season. "I really didn't think I'd come in and play a game like I did today."

That he could average 6.3 yards per carry -- with no run longer than 15 yards -- says loads about the 49ers' ability to block, and Watters' ability to gain tough yardage.

''Watters broke a lot of tackles," said Rams Coach Chuck Knox, whose team fell to 4-7. "We had a lot of hits, but he just kept coming."

That the 49ers' rushing attack would gain more yards (213-153) and average more yards per attempt (5.8 to 5.3) than the passing attack punctuated this much: A complete sense of balance, not seen since Roger Craig's heyday in 1989, is a reality for the 49ers' No. 1-ranked offense.

And the 49ers used that balance to pull away eventually from a weaker opponent, something they could not do in earlier wins over the Rams and New England -- not to mention the difficulty Phoenix gave them in an upset win.

''One thing that's nice about being able to have a running game is, if you're not in sync, if the passing game sometimes is not going the way you want it to go, you can go back to the running game," offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan said. "I think we were able to do that.

''We got their defense playing a little soft. We were stopping ourselves when we did complete some passes. But we picked it up a notch when we were able to run the football."

The victory -- never safe until Steve Young found Jerry Rice on a 42-yard slant-and-go pattern for a 20-10 lead with 6 minutes, 36 seconds remaining -- gives the 49ers their first sweep of the NFC West since 1984.

The 49ers also maintain a slight tiebreaker edge over Dallas (9-2) in the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs. That's because the 49ers have conquered all their division opponents; the Cowboys dropped a Monday night game this season to NFC East rival Philadelphia. The 49ers play the Eagles on Sunday at Candlestick.

''A sweep, that's something to be proud of, of course, but we've still got a lot of work to do," said defensive end Pierce Holt, who combined with veteran linebacker Mike Walter (game-high eight tackles) on an inside rush that limited Rams quarterback Jim Everett to 158 yards, his lowest total since Sept. 27, when he had only 151 passing against the New York Jets.

The surprise, though, was the game-long struggle by Young, the NFL's top-rated passer. Against a Rams defense that has not allowed a 300-yard game this season, he completed only 14 of 26 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown, often facing a zone that was made up of eight defenders.

''It was like we were just not in rhythm," said Young, who attributed part of his problems to the fact the 49ers were often forced into obvious passing situations. "We'll take some positives out of it. I mean, how many penalties do you need to start drives? How many times were we first-and-20?"

In answer to the second question: twice. But that wasn't the half of it. Eight penalties for 55 yards snuffed out momentum on plenty of occasions.

Watters became the savior, but the Rams forced the issue, continuing to sneak back in the game. By the start of the fourth quarter, the 49ers' lead was only 13-10 after a 31-yard scoring pass to Henry Ellard and a 34-yard field goal by Tony Zendajas.

Rice's touchdown catch and then Watters' 3-yard touchdown run with 1:11 remaining put it away and washed away any doubts the 49ers could have about their ability to rebound from adversity.

''We just kept overcoming it, and the defense played tremendous, going for the win," Young said. "In a long season, this is another way to win. We've shown a lot of different ways to win; this is a different one. We kind of showed the whole gamut."