San Francisco's bid for a third straight Super Bowl title got off to a good start Saturday when the 49ers beat the Washington Redskins 28-10.
"When it comes to the playoffs, we have the players who can turn it up another notch and make the big plays." said Jerry Rice, who had an 8-yard touchdown catch.San Francisco will host next Sunday's NFC title game against the winner of Sunday's game between the Chicago Bears and New York Giants.
In the AFC, gimpy-kneed Jim Kelly won a duel in the snow with Miami's Dan Marino, carrying Buffalo past the Dolphins 44-34. The Bills, in the AFC championship game for the second time in three years, will play the winner of Sunday's game between the Los Angeles Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals.
The biggest plays in San Francisco's victory were made by the defense and by Joe Montana, the league MVP the past two years and a three-time Super Bowl MVP. Montana threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns. In the first half, he was 11 of 13 for 192 yards on three touchdown drives that gave the 49ers a 21-10 halftime lead.
"We were on the verge of scoring but they made some great plays," Washington coach Joe Gibbs said. "If we could have gotten even, we could have hammered it out."
In Buffalo, Kelly returned after missing 2 1/2 games because of a sprained left knee and passed for 339 yards and three TDs. He needed all of them, though, because Marino matched him at every turn, finishing with 323 yards and three TDs. He also ran for another.
Sunday's game between the Giants and Bears is considered a throwback to the old NFL, a game from another era.
"There's no question it will be a head-knocker, with lots of slobber flying around out there," Bears defensive tackle Dan Hampton said. "The last man standing probably will win it."
The AFC West-champion Raiders earned a first-round bye with their 12-4 record, second-best behind Buffalo. The Central Division-champion Bengals, 9-7 during the regular season, qualified by beating Houston 41-14 last Sunday.