The San Francisco 49ers, those Nanooks of the north (California), cut through frost-biting winds and teeth-chattering reputations Sunday to put an end to a few myths and the Chicago Bears, winning the National Football Conference title with a chilling, if not thrilling, 28-3 win at Soldier Field.
The team that won the title here did it in the face of 29-mph winds and temperatures that dipped to a wind-chill factor of minus-26 degrees, freezing the sweat on players' faces."After the first quarter, my feet were frozen," 49ers defensive end Larry Roberts said. "I couldn't feel my feet."
And it figured.
The 49ers came east with images as wine tasters of football, admirers of fine food and finesse offense. They lugged some 1,500 pounds of cold-weather equipment to Chicago - rubber-soled shoes, anti-cold creams, bun warmers.
They came east with history's deck stacked against them. The 49ers hadn't won a road playoff came in 18 years. No NFC team had won a title on the road since the 1979.
But figuring that, perhaps, they were the better team, the 49ers came anyway, and warmed themselves by hurdling through the Chicago defense, trouncing the Bears on their field, in what was supposed to be Bear weather.
"If they're so tough," 49er cornerback Tim McKyer was saying afterward, "why did all that happen?"
What happens next is the 49ers, in a rematch of the 1982 Super Bowl, will face the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl Jan. 22 at Miami.
The Miami climate will be welcome.
But even though the 49ers' feet were most certainly cold Sunday, it didn't mean that they jumped into the game with cold feet.
Ignoring thermometers and numbing limbs, the 49ers stuck to their game plan, the first 25 plays of which were scripted the night before, as always.
Instead of running on a frozen field, which is the conventional wisdom, San Francisco came at the Bears with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. It was wisdom of another kind.
The strategy took the Bears by surprise, and even a few 49ers.
"It shocked me," Roberts said. "I didn't expect us to move the ball on offense. I thought it would be a 7-6 game, or 10-9 like last time. But we moved the ball."
Move it they did, scoring with 3:18 left in the first quarter when Montana fired in the right flat for Rice, who broke free as Bears cornerback Mike Richardson collided with safety Todd Krumm. Rice raced 61 yards untouched for the touchdown.
"Joe told me the ball might not be right where I wanted it to be, and I would have to make a play on it," Rice said. "And I did."
If Montana was having trouble with the wind, it wasn't apparent. He teamed with Rice again in the second quarter, reading a Chicago blitz and dumping the ball to Rice over the middle.
Montana called this a "hot read," meaning he was to read the blitz and look for the tight end, John Frank. Frank wasn't open, but Rice had broken free of cornerback Vestee Jackson, made the catch in open field and then cruised for the touchdown, a 27-yard play. It helped put the 49ers up, 14-0, with 7:25 left in the half, a lead that seemed commanding given the circumstances.
Working in almost unbearable conditions, Montana seemed undaunted by the winds or the Bears' defense.
Unlike Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon, who wore gloves but lacked any touch, Montana threw with a bare hand and uncanny accuracy.
"It might have been his greatest game, under the conditions," 49ers Coach Bill Walsh said.
Afterward, Montana almost shrugged off the conditions and claimed he actually had a "good feel of the ball."
By the half, he had completed 9 of 15 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns. McMahon struggled. Through the first 30 minutes, he threw for 94 yards, and his one interception, by 49ers safety Jeff Fuller, set up San Francisco's second touchdown.
Montana is a man of few words and little emotion, but the victory obviously was one of the biggest of his storied career. It was a crowning finish to a season in which Montana had outlasted a quarterback controversy with Steve Young and lingering questions about whether he was fit. Walsh had even sent Montana to the bench on occasion this year, citing injuries and fatigue.
"I didn't feel I was ever hurt," Montana said. "Bill felt I was, and he has the right to make that decision."