It was billed as the Cinderella Bowl, pro football's two biggest surprises on the same field. The San Francisco 49ers, Coach Prince Charming and all, were there. The Cincinnati Bengals sent their ugly sister.
The result was a 21-3 victory for the 49ers today before 57,796 cold and disgruntled fans in Riverfront Stadium. San Francisco was so good today, forcing six Cincinnati turnovers, that Coach Bill Walsh actually admitted his 11-3 NFC West championship team is pretty good.
"The better team won today," said Walsh, who last week called the Bengals the best team in football. "We just did a very good job all day long. I feel very good about the way we played."
For Walsh, that kind of statement borders on euphoria. As the 49ers have handled one challenge after another this season, he has smiled his charming smile, brushed his white hair back and declared that his team is "a couple of drafts away."
"They aren't anything away," said Bengal receiver Steve Kreider, hands and arms streaked with blood from being pounded all day. "They're very good right now. We made mistakes, didn't execute, but they had a lot to do with it."
San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana, even without Freddie Solomon to go deep, was mercilessly efficient, completing 23 of 34 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns, connecting with eight receivers.
The defense hit hard, consistently.
Rookie cornerback Ronnie Lott came up with his seventh interception of the season, one of three by the 49ers today. In the second half, linebacker Bobby Leopold knocked Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson out of the game and recovered a fumble (one of three) in the same series. Dwight Hicks recovered two fumbles, giving him a total of 12 turnovers this season.
In all, the 49ers forced six turnovers against a team that had 15 in its first 13 games. San Francisco's defense now has 45 turnovers for the season. The Bengals also hurt themselves with nine penalties for 70 yards.
The Bengals (10-4) were more concerned with looking ahead than looking back. Their first concern is Anderson. The veteran quarterback, superb all season, hobbled off with 10:38 left in the third quarter after he had tried unsuccessfully to scramble away from Leopold.
The initial diagnosis was a hyperextended big toe, an injury more serious than it sounds because it prevents a player from putting any weight on the foot. Although X-rays showed no fracture, the injury is on the right foot, the one Anderson throws off of, so he is questionable for Sunday' AFC Central showdown at Pittsburgh.
As for today's game, Anderson said: "We've done well this year because I've had time to throw. Today, I didn't have as much time. We had six turnovers. You don't win with six turnovers."
The Bengals' first turnover came on their first series when Anderson, facing third and six at the San Francisco 43, threw behind Isaac Curtis; Lott tipped the ball, then caught it at the 34.
From there, the 49ers put together a typical drive, methodically moving 66 yards in 15 plays as Montana mixed short passes with sweeps. Walsh showed his flair by going for a fourth and one at the Cincinnati 38. Johnny Davis picked up the distance, by an inch.
Montana's pass to Dwight Clark gained 20 yards to the three.
Two plays later, Montana faked into the line, then found halfback Bill Ring, a special teamer playing today only because of Paul Hofer's injury, alone in the right corner of the end zone.
"When I have time, the guys are going to get open," said Montana, who has completed 64 percent of his passes this season.
Montana had weeks; Anderson had seconds. The Cincinnati quarterback had to run as an act of self-preservation and did well, running four times for 45 yards.
But even though the Bengals moved the ball in the first half, their only points came on Jim Breech's 30-yard field goal with 2:32 left to make it 7-3.
Their best chance for a touchdown came on the previous play. With third down at the 12, Anderson tried to lob the ball to Kreider in the end zone, a play that has worked several times this season. It looked as if it had worked again until Hicks, with a last-second dive, knocked the ball away.
After the field goal, the 49ers coasted 80 yards in 11 plays, getting their second touchdown with two seconds left in the half when Montana split two defenders with a 15-yard pass to Clark, who did a ballet routine at the back line of the end zone and stayed in to make it 14-3 at the half.
The second half turned out to be routine. Once Anderson left, the Bengals were impotent. Backup Jack Thompson was sacked twice by the 49er rush and looked otherwise harassed, adding an interception and never getting Cincinnati close until the final seconds.
Montana scored the final touchdown, on a one-yard run after Lott caused Dan Ross to fumble at the Bengal 40 and Hicks recovered.
So it was left to Hofer, only a spectator today, to write the final line. "How do you like that?" he said repeatedly. "I knew we were good, but not this good. We made it look easy."
For Cinderella, beating the ugly sister has always been easy.