It was a four-minute stretch that told more about the San Francisco 49ers, their coach and their quarterback than anything else they had accomplished this season.

Even after compiling the best record in the National Football League, even after putting together two seven-game winning streaks by beating some of the most talented opponents around, the 49ers still weren't respected enough to be favored over the Dallas Cowboys in Sunday's National Football Conference championship game.

And despite the impressive three-year rebuilding job he has done in San Francisco, Bill Walsh's name probably wouldn't have been listed among the league's best coaches. Nor would Joe Montana have been mentioned as one of the top quarterbacks despite being the No. 1 rated NFC quarterback this season.

All that changed in four minutes Sunday. That's how long the 49ers took to drive 89 yards and score the winning touchdown against the playoff-tough Cowboys. That's how long it took Walsh's marvelous play-calling and Montana's uncanny pressure performance to pull San Francisco into the Super Bowl against Cincinnati, a team the 49ers beat, 17-3, in October.

Sunday's victory is the most memorable in the 36-year history of the 49ers, who have no previous championship cups in their trophy case. It was a moment celebrated by their loyal fans long into the wee hours of this morning, as those wonderful four minutes were replayed over and over.

This could now be a terrific Super Bowl between two offensive-minded teams who proved both in the regular season and the playoffs that they are the best in their respective conferences. It also is a unique Super Bowl, because it is the first one matching clubs who had losing records the year before.

But it could be a special afternoon for other reasons too. Walsh will be competing against the team that decided not to hire him as its head coach in 1975, a decision that has left Walsh bitter. And he'll be trying to stop one of his former pupils, Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson.

But, at least for a few days, the 49ers can savor the final hectic minutes of Sunday's game. "Bill Walsh outcoached Tom Landry, period," said John Brodie, the ex-49er quarterback. "It's about time he was recognized as the best coach in the league. This team is going to be good for years to come."

There is no question that Walsh was at his best in the 13-play touchdown drive. With just under five minutes on the clock and all three timeouts remaining, he was in no rush. He intended to, as he put it, methodically cut up the Cowboy defense. And he did just that, with the enormous help of Montana.

Dallas figured Walsh would order nothing but passes, so they put in six defensive backs and only one linebacker. So Walsh called four running plays that gained 31 yards. The ball carrier on all four was journeyman Lenvil Elliott, who had missed most of the season with a knee injury, recuperated in Cincinnati (his hometown) and then was activated two weeks ago in what was then considered a surprising decision.

When Walsh noticed the Cowboy defense was tired, he sent Fred Solomon around end on a reverse that gained 17 yards. Then, when he faced a third and three from the Dallas six, he thought back to a play he had used in the first half that resulted in an eight-yard Montana-to-Solomon touchdown pass.

He ordered the same play again. When the Cowboys closed on Solomon, Montana, who was rolling to his right and trying to avoid the on-rushing Ed Jones, spotted Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone. The pass either would be caught or it would go out of bounds. Somehow the leaping Clark held on and the 49ers were in the Super Bowl.