SAN FRANCISCO, DEC. 14 -- The NFL season kept begging for a team worth praising. Through a 24-day players strike, three weeks of replacement games, and eight more weeks of mediocrity that made it nearly impossible to distinguish the good from the bad, the league didn't appear to have a truly great team.
But all that may have changed tonight in the chill of Candlestick Park, where the largest crowd ever to watch a game here saw the San Francisco 49ers lay an unmerciful beating on the Chicago Bears, 41-0, as wide receiver Jerry Rice tied two NFL records, catching three touchdown passes.
The game was even more lopsided than that. It was the worst loss for the Bears since 1977, and it put Chicago's chances for any sustained postseason success in the proper perspective. Quarterback Mike Tomczak threw four interceptions in the first half, as Chicago committed six turnovers and trailed, 20-0, at intermission.
But there's no sense pretending things would have been different if quarterback Jim McMahon had been healthy.
And the Bears certainly couldn't use that as an excuse, considering that San Francisco played three quarters without Joe Montana, who injured his hamstring and knee early in the game.
With Montana watching from the sideline on crutches, backup quarterback Steve Young came in to throw a career-high four touchdown passes.
For Rice, the three touchdown receptions pushed him to 18 for the year, tying the NFL record set in 1984 by Mark Clayton. He also tied the NFL mark for consecutive games with a touchdown reception, 11, held by Elroy Hirsch of the Rams (1950-51) and Buddy Dial of the Steelers (1959-60).
More importantly for the 49ers (11-2), tonight's victory broke a deadlock with the Bears (10-3) for the top spot in the NFC. With only two games remaining, the 49ers are a game ahead of New Orleans (10-3) in the NFC West, and are now a game ahead of the Saints, Bears and Redskins (10-3) in the all-important race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
San Francisco might have to play next week without Montana, who has been having the best season of his career. But if Young can play half this well in the final two weeks of the regular season -- the 49ers close with Atlanta and the Rams -- Montana can take his rest without fretting. San Francisco's offensive barrage came against the top-rated defense in the league the previous three years, and the No. 3-ranked defense this season.
The Bears, meanwhile, will have to re-evaluate and regroup in time for Sunday's home game with Seattle. Although the Bears have already won the NFC Central, they go into the final weeks having suffered their first shutout since the 49ers beat them, 23-0, here in the NFC title game in January 1985.
Since it was Monday night, it was automatic that McMahon would be a question mark; he has never played a complete Monday night game in his career.
This time, McMahon never even put on a uniform. Instead, he stood on the sideline in street clothes, inactive because of an injured hamstring he suffered in the fourth quarter of last week's game at Minnesota.
That, of course, meant trouble for the Bears. Even though Tomczak, in his third year as a backup, came into the game with a 10-0 record as a starter, he has never looked especially impressive and is still guilty of "rookie" mistakes. The 49ers happily discovered that when Tomczak threw four interceptions in the first half tonight.
It looked as if things had been evened when Montana went down with an injured hamstring and knee on a freak play in the first quarter.
Montana had moved the 49ers to Chicago's 12-yard line and dropped back to pass when he tripped over the leg of running back Roger Craig. Montana tried to brace himself and maintain balance by planting his left leg.
So out went Montana, helped off by two teammates, his career-high 29 touchdown passes and invaluable leadership out for the evening. In came Young.
From the results, one wouldn't even know Montana was in the dressing room. The first thing Young did was run through and around the Bears defenders for an 11-yard gain to the 1. And two plays later, he tossed a pass to Rice, who grabbed it for his 16th touchdown of the season, fifth of three yards or less. The catch made it 7-0 midway through the first quarter.
Chicago's offense without McMahon looked unstable. Walter Payton fumbled on a first-down play, the 49ers recovered at the 10, and wound up getting a 20-yard field goal from Ray Wersching for a 10-0 lead.
Tomczak threw the first of his interceptions, and Wersching wound up with a 45-yard field goal for a 13-0 lead with nine minutes left in the half. The Bears were fortunate not to be behind by more than that.
It wasn't just Tomczak either, although he certainly played a major role. Willie Gault, having an all-pro season until tonight, dropped one pass in the end zone and another 50-yard bomb that would have put Chicago close.
Even reliable kicker Kevin Butler messed up. He had made 14 consecutive field goals, but missed a 40-yarder in the first half that could have gotten the Bears within 13-3.
When Chicago's defense did stop Young and get decent field position for the offense, Tomczak threw yet another interception. This one, by Michael Walter, put the 49ers at the Bears 20.
Moments later, Young threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Dwight Clark.