The hand-painted sign taped to the back wall of the second deck said "Revenge." The sigh from Bill Walsh's lips indicated relief. The 49ers weren't so much thinking about last year as they were thinking about this night.

"This was about as fine a football game as has been played in this stadium," said Walsh, the San Francisco coach. He might have been overstating the case, but not by much.

The 49ers constructed a 27-3 halftime lead over the Redskins on an evening of drifting fog and repetitive excitement at Candlestick Park and then, like Rocky in the final round, ended up hanging on the ropes but also hanging on to a 37-31 victory.

Throughout the week the Bay Area media had leaned heavily on the results of last year's NFC chanmpionship game in which Washington, having led early on, 21-0, took advantage of two key pass interference penalties and a Mark Moseley field goal to advance to Super Bowl XVIII with a 24-21 victory. The fans were out for blood. The coaches and players were less fanatical.

"The players simply feel relief in the fact the Redskins' comeback fell short," Walsh conceded. "But we also feel satisfaction, the same type of satisfaction I'm sure the Redskins felt last year in their win over us."

At halftime of the game played before the fourth-largest Candlestick football crowd in history, 59,707, the 49er staff tried to warn the troops about a Redskin comeback.

"We told them, 'If you think the second half is going to be easy, you're crazy,' " said Paul Hackett, the offensive coach. "We knew the Redskins were a veteran team and had been to two straight Super Bowls. We knew they weren't going to quit."

Hackett said he also knew the 49ers could throw against Washington. And San Francisco threw and threw, at least before halftime. Quarterback Joe Montana was finding receivers practically everyplace from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge.

"We passed against them last year in the championship game," reminded Hackett. "We knew we could do it again, expecially with Montana.

"Joe hasn't thrown an interception this season, even in the exhibitions. He didn't throw an interception in the playoffs. He knows when to take chances. He's a great athlete and a great quarterback."

Montana, who was 16 of 28 in the first half for 211 yards, ended with 24 of 40 for 381 yards.

"Give the Redskins credit," said Montana. "They played well in the second half. Their blitzes were particularly effective. In the second half we tried to play more ball control. We knew with their high-powered offense they would put some points on the board."

They did, but not enough to keep from opening the season with two straight defeats.