Monday, November 16, 1992

49ERS FOLLOW BIG-FINISH TRADITION

Dallas Morning News

SAN FRANCISCO - Joe Montana appears on the verge of returning to the San Francisco 49ers. But it's no longer his team.

That became official Sunday when Steve Young staged a Montana-like performance, rallying the 49ers for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 21-20 National Football League victory over the New Orleans Saints.

It was a game the 49ers needed to win against an opponent they needed to beat - and no one left Candlestick Park muttering, ''If somehow only we had Joe . . .''

Young threw touchdown passes of 14 and 8 yards to tight end Brent Jones in the final 11 minutes, rallying the 49ers from a 20-7 deficit for sole possession of first place in the NFC West.

San Francisco and New Orleans entered 7-2 - but the Saints fell two games back for all practical purposes because the 49ers swept the two-game series. That gives the 49ers the divisional tiebreaker - and an 8-2 record that ties Dallas for the best mark in the NFC. NFC Central leader Minnesota also lost Sunday.

''This was a great one to win,'' Jones said. ''A lot of the top teams lost today - we're just glad we weren't one of them.''

That's because Young and the 49ers decided to go to their two-minute offense late in the third quarter.

After Dalton Hilliard caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Bobby Hebert to give the Saints the 20-7 lead with 18 1/2 minutes left in the game, the 49ers went to the hurry-up attack.

With Young calling the plays, the 49ers marched deep into the New Orleans end on three possessions in the final period. The first sputtered at the Saints' 14 on a sack of Young - then Mike Cofer tried a 32-yard field goal, but the ball hit the left upright with 13 minutes 16 seconds to play.

Some in the crowd of 64,895 headed for the exits. After all, Montana wasn't there to engineer one of his patented fantastic finishes. But Young was.

In three consecutive games earlier in the season, Young rallied the 49ers from fourth-quarter deficits for victories over New Orleans, the Los Angeles Rams and New England. But all lacked the drama of this one.

''This had to be one of the more exciting fourth quarters we've had around here in a long time,'' 49ers coach George Seifert said.

Through three quarters, Young had completed only 10 of 16 passes for 83 y ards. But he lit up the Saints in the final 15 minutes with 14 of 21 passing for 122 yards and the two scores.

''Going to our two-minute offense really broke the ice for us,'' Young said. ''It kind of loosened things up and gave us the edge. They had been doing a nice job defensively of dictating the tempo. But that allowed us to take it back.''

Young marched the 49ers 65 yards on six plays on their second possession of the fourth quarter. He hit Jones with a 14-yarder for the score with 10:16 remaining.

Then the winning drive started at San Francisco's 26 with four minutes left. Young completed five passes and also converted a third-and-4 situation with a quarterback sweep. Two plays later, Young found Jones for the winning touchdown with 46 seconds remaining.

New Orleans still had 46 seconds to get into Morten Andersen's field-goal range: 52 yards and in. But after Hebert threw an 8-yard pass to Torrance Small, moving the ball to their 39, he failed to call time out, even though the Saints had three left. By then, it was too late.