The king of comebacks wasn't about to come back into the game. But it didn't matter. The heir to the throne had things well in hand.
Joe Montana never got the hot hand in his final warmup for the playoffs and left Sunday's game at halftime with San Francisco trailing 10-0. That left it up to understudy Steve Young to rally the 49ers to a 20-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.Young threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, including a 34-yarder to John Taylor with 29 seconds to play, as the 49ers finished the regular season with a 14-2 record.
On the winning drive, Young completed six of seven passes for 88 yards and also had a 2-yard dive on fourth-and-1. It was a most Montana-esque performance.
"That's one of the things we do best, the comeback," said Montana, who knew going into the game that he would play only a half. "In that situation, no matter who's out there, it's our basic passing game. Whether I'm out there or Steve, we do a pretty good job at it."
Minnesota cornerback Carl Lee, who was burned by Jerry Rice on Young's first TD pass, said, "You really can't call Young a backup quarterback. He's an exception to the rule. Everybody wants a backup who can come into a game and not lose it for you, but he can add a dimension that's different from what the starting quarterback offers you."
In addition to completing 15 of 24 passes for 205 yards, Young scrambled six times for 59 yards.
"His scrambling hurt us more than his passing," Lee said.
The most impressive thing about the 49ers' final drive was Young's ability to resist the urge to run.
"I don't go into a last drive saying I'm going to run around and try to make something happen," he said. "That's an option, but I don't want to do it unless no one is open. I want to throw the football."
Minnesota Coach Jerry Burns, disgusted after his Vikings blew yet another game to finish with a 6-10 record, was asked if Young was tougher to defend than Montana.
Without hesitating, Burns answered, "No. Montana's the best. This guy poses a different problem, but Montana's the best."
He wasn't Sunday, but it didn't matter.
Thanks to Young, San Francisco still extended its NFL record with its 18th straight road victory and became the first team in league history to record three seasons of 14 or more victories. Young got a lot of help from Rice, who caught nine passes for 118 yards and became only the fourth player ever with 100 receptions in a season.
"The win is great, but it's the way you win that really makes the difference," San Francisco's Dave Waymer said. "Our guys fought down to the end, and we pulled another one out."
With the 49ers, style points count. They not only have a flair for success - with four Super Bowl victories, including two in a row - but a flair for the dramatic.
"This was a much better way to go into the playoffs, with a strong feeling of 49er football," Young said. "This is what you pride yourself on. Good NFL quarterbacks have to (lead comebacks) regularly."
Just as it was simply another day at the office for the 49ers, the same could be said of the Vikings. In 1990, they made a science out of losing games at the end.
"It epitomizes the whole season. We had our chance to win the game, and we couldn't stop them," Burns said. "I just had a premonition they'd go right down and score and we wouldn't stop them. The secondary play was sick. The pass rush. The whole thing.
"They know how to win, and this team doesn't. Any time you win you can feed off that success. You know that, in the past, you've come back and won games. This team hasn't done it."
NFC Central champions last season, the Vikings finished in last place for the first time since 1984. They ended the season with a four-game losing slump.
"You really have to be scratching to find anything positive," Burns said. "When I saw that guy shoot that gun at the end, that was the most positive thing I saw."
The Vikings ended the season with a loss to the 49ers for the third straight year. The 49ers have gone on to win the Super Bowl the last three seasons in which they beat Minnesota.
"We had a great opportunity to beat one of the great teams in the NFL, and we blew it," said Ken Clarke, who had three of Minnesota's six sacks. "For us, there's no tomorrow."
And for the 49ers, tomorrow's looking pretty good.