If someone had said before the NFC championship game that defense would make the difference, it would have been natural to assume that the Chicago Bears would be going to the Super Bowl.
Today at Candlestick Park, defense did make the difference. But the Bears are going nowhere.
The league's greatest defense gave up 23 points today. San Francisco, the team with the great offense, gave up none and had a Bear-like nine sacks.
It is clear as the 49ers, 23-0 winners today, head down the highway to Palo Alto for Super Bowl XIX that the spotlight was on the wrong defense all week.
"Everyone kept talking about the Bears' defense, the Bears' defense, the Bears' defense," said San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana as he stood in front of his locker on the upper level of the 49ers' dressing room. "What they didn't realize is that the best defense is right down there."
The 49ers are a team of many talents. But none was more visible, or more important, than the one that said "No" to the Bears at every turn in front of a record Candlestick Park crowd of 61,040.
As the 49ers beat the big, bad Bears at their own game, it became apparent that the Super Bowl matchup most expected is complete. The NFC champion 49ers (17-1) will play the AFC champion Miami Dolphins (16-2) at Stanford Stadium Jan. 20.
"There is no doubt that the two best teams will be playing in the Super Bowl," 49ers Coach Bill Walsh said.
Today, the images of victory for the 49ers do not include the usual fast start to the easy victory. The score this time was 6-0 at halftime.
Montana threw for 233 yards and a 10-yard touchdown to Freddie Solomon in an 18-for-34 day, but the sacking, pursuing 49ers defense ruled the field.
What stood out was Walter Payton, futilely churning toward the sideline, looking for yardage that didn't exist. Helpless quarterback Steve Fuller ricocheting between defensive linemen. And the only pass that came near former Olympic sprinter Willie Gault sliding off his hands into those of Dwight Hicks for an interception.
Those three were the players the 49ers were trying to stop, linebacker Keena Turner said. Payton gained 92 yards on 22 carries, but Gault was shut out and Fuller was 13 of 22 for 87 yards. The Bears gained 186 yards today, which sometimes is a good day for Payton alone.
"As a defense, when we had a 6-0 lead at halftime, we told ourselves that was all our offense was going to get," Turner said. "We had to play like that. In fact, we always tell ourselves we're in the hole, 7-0."
The 49ers sacked Fuller eight times and even got Payton once, for a total of 50 lost yards.
"I'll tell ya, everybody talks about our pass rush," Chicago defensive tackle Steve McMichael said.
It was the 49ers' second shutout of the season (they beat the Los Angeles Rams, 33-0), and the first time the Bears had been shut out this season. The last time there was a shutout in the NFC title game was 1979, when the Los Angeles Rams beat Tampa Bay, 9-0.
"To have a shutout on this level, in the NFC championship game . . . we can't do better than that," Turner said.
After the 49ers took a 20-0 lead with 11:15 remaining in the game on Wendell Tyler's nine-yard third-quarter touchdown run and Solomon's scoring catch, Ray Wersching kicked his third field goal of the day, a 34-yarder, with 1:57 to play.
He was the only tangible offense in the first half, with field goals of 21 and 22 yards, as the 49ers passed freely underneath the Bears' linebackers (gaining 181 passing yards to Chicago's zero) -- until they cracked Chicago's five-yard line. Then, those final five yards turned into frustration.
Twice, there were the field goals, and, in between was safety Gary Fencik's interception of Montana's easy two-yard lob toward Solomon in the end zone.
Meanwhile, the Bears' initial 54-yard drive collapsed in Bob Thomas' missed 41-yard field-goal attempt. They never really threatened again.
"That was the only time we were really able to get it together," Fuller said. "This was the most pressure that I've faced all season. Most of the season, we were able to avoid the sacks. We weren't as fortunate today. They just kept coming and coming."
Chicago took more than six minutes off the clock on its first possession, propelled by two draw plays -- one to Matt Suhey for 15 yards out of the shotgun, one to Payton for 20 behind a pulling guard and tackle. That was to be his longest gain of the day.
"They never really made a big play on us," said cornerback Ronnie Lott.
The Bears drove to the San Francisco 25 without much trouble, but a rare sack of Payton, who was looking for a receiver after taking a pitch, was the beginning of the end.
"They were the best team today," Payton said. "We felt we could do certain things, particularly on first downs, but they were able to stop us when they had to."
The Bears didn't complete a pass to a wide receiver until the third quarter, which severely limited any balance they were trying to achieve on offense.
"Our defensive theory was to keep everything underneath and let the linebackers help at the line," said 49ers cornerback Eric Wright.
The 49ers finally scored a touchdown midway through the third quarter on one of those "gadget" plays the Bears use now and then.
With reserve guard Guy McIntyre lined up next to Tyler in the backfield to block, Tyler ran nine yards around the right side for a touchdown and 13-0 lead with 8:27 remaining in the third quarter.
The Bears, feebly mounting what became their final comeback try, had a first down at the San Francisco 22 before consecutive sacks pushed them back to the 40 and forced a punt.
The 49ers took over on their 12 and drove right to another touchdown, the 10-yard pass to Solomon, as Montana did what worked all day. He rolled out of the pocket to avoid Chicago's feared blitz, coming from the "flop" defense that puts eight men on the line.
Cornerback Mike Richardson, trying to defend Solomon on the play, got hung up when Solomon broke to the outside as Montana rolled out. The touchdown made it 20-0 with 11:15 left.
Perhaps more important than anything else in this game was its pregame hype. The Bears talked; the 49ers listened.
"We heard all those stories about the Bear defense," Wright said. "That was the key today. Those guys were very vocal in the press this week. That was the motivating factor."
Dwaine Board, the defensive end who crushed Fuller on his only sack, said he had read that San Francisco was a "finesse" team.
"Nobody should call us a finesse defense," he said. "We didn't make this personal; it wasn't a grudge match. But we play hard."
They played even harder today because the 49ers didn't jump to their usual lead.
"We usually get up 14 points and end up letting down a little as a defense," Wright said. "Today, we knew if we didn't get the lead, we would just have to hold them."
And they did.