SAN FRANCISCO, NOV. 30 -- Wide receivers Jerry Rice, the new rage, and Dwight Clark, the aging hero, embraced in the end zone after Rice's third touchdown catch, then looked up as Joe Montana, the man who made it all happen, jogged toward them.

In that threesome is the heart of the most potent NFL offense of the 1980s, the hottest combination this season and one of the best of past years when the San Francisco 49ers won two Super Bowls.

They had something special to celebrate on Sunday night as they helped stamp the San Francisco 49ers as a true Super Bowl contender in a 38-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

"Tonight we proved we're one of the real solid teams in the NFL," said 49ers Coach Bill Walsh.

Said Montana: "Some guys said we had to beat certain teams to show how good we are, that we weren't playing the best teams. This should show them."

The 49ers are 9-2, only one game ahead of New Orleans in the NFC West, but they flexed their muscles against the Browns, who came in boasting the league's top defense. The Browns (7-4) were first against the pass, third against the run and stingier with yards and points than anyone else.

So much for numbers.

Rice, in his third season, got his second straight three-touchdown game, and Clark, in his ninth, made three catches, including No. 501 of his career for a 40-yard touchdown and a team-record 6,681 yards.

The 49ers totaled 455 yards, about 200 more than the Browns have been giving up per game, and outscored Cleveland's last three opponents combined.

"Rice is a good receiver, but it's {Montana} who takes the snap from center. He's outstanding," said Browns Coach Marty Schottenheimer.

Montana read the Browns' defense perfectly most of the game, calling audibles twice for touchdowns, and completed 23 of 31 passes for 342 yards. He also led both teams in rushing with 43 yards in four carries.

"I was pretty pumped up," Montana said. "The biggest key, though, is the protection up front. When you have the time, it's tough for anybody to cover Jerry."

Rice, who caught seven passes for 126 yards and raised his season total to a league-high 14 touchdown catches, silenced the usually yapping "Dogs" in Cleveland's defense.

"They were doing a lot of talking out there early in the game," Rice said. "But we started moving the ball, and then it got quiet, real quiet."

When Clark hugged Rice after his third touchdown early in the fourth quarter, he also gave the younger player a supreme compliment.

"I used to think you were the best receiver I'd ever seen," Clark said. "Now I think you're probably the best football player I've ever seen, known or talked to."

Rice said he was inspired by Cleveland's reputation.

"I heard so much talk all week about how good Cleveland's defense is, it was a real challenge for me," said Rice, who ran between vaunted safeties Felix Wright and Ray Ellis to make a leaping 30-yard touchdown catch. Rice held onto the ball after being hit hard in the air by Wright.

"We pretty much knew what to expect from Jerry Rice," Ellis said. "It was just a matter of getting the job done against him, and we didn't do it. They played pretty much a mistake-free game . . . I don't think we were too overconfident. We just had a bad day today and we couldn't afford to have a bad day against the 49ers."

The Browns managed 356 total yards, but couldn't maintain drives. Two of their touchdowns came on fumble recoveries, and kicker Jeff Jaeger missed two of three field goal attempts.