It was midweek in their preparations for the 1981 NFC Championship Game, and the Dallas Cowboys had seen enough. Having watched the San Francisco 49ers flood zones, throw to backs, run crossing and seam routes and make dozens of plays in the final minutes of games, Charlie Waters, the unspoken captain of the Dallas defense, went to his coaching staff.

"Don't show us any more," he said. "We've seen enough, and we're going to be so intimidated we're going to be beaten before the game starts."

Waters was impressed and he couldn't have known the 49ers were on their way to becoming pro football's most successful team in the 1980s. They would win that NFC Championship Game, 28-27, when Joe Montana and Dwight Clark connected on The Catch.

Afterwards, Waters and the Cowboys tipped their headgear to the 49ers, who threw out such an array of offensive weapons and formations that, finally, the Cowboys couldn't stop them all.

These days, the 49ers are not much different. These days, the formations they threw at the Cowboys then have become more commonplace around pro football, but almost no one does as many things as the 49ers.

"You need two weeks to prepare for them," said Richie Petitbon, the Washington Redskins' assistant head coach-defense. "They do it all. There's still a lot of the Bill Walsh influence with them. Not as much, but they give you a lot to think about."

As the Redskins have prepared for Sunday afternoon's game at Candlestick Park, they admit that the 49ers offense will fill up a thick notebook. But that may not be their secret.

"Their secret, if that's what you call it, is that they line up and knock you on your tail," running back Earnest Byner said. "A lot of teams show you different looks, but you still have to make the plays."

Defensively, the 49ers succeed on hustle and "putting eight or 10 helmets" on the ball every play, Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. In fact, unlike other teams, including the Redskins, the 49ers don't make wholesale defensive substitutions, relying instead on the athletic ability of their players to match up with the players on the field no matter the situation.

Yet there's no argument the 49ers are special, perhaps more special than any team in history.

The question for the Redskins this week has been: Why are the 49ers so good? Is it simply good personnel and good coaching? Or is it more than that?

Likewise, how can the 49ers be stopped? What works and what doesn't?

The Redskins have spent many hours attempting to answer those questions this week, and without revealing specifics, they say it'll take a combination of things, not all of them hard to figure out.

One prominent NFL scout said that anyone who watched what the New Orleans Saints did during a 13-12 loss in the Superdome Monday night would have some ideas.

Specifically, the Saints:Double-teamed wide receiver Jerry Rice. That strategy almost worked since Rice caught only two passes and was held without a touchdown. But one of those two receptions came in the final minute and set up Mike Cofer's 38-yard, game-winning field goal.Made good tackles. Gibbs and other Redskins say the Saints did a terrific job of hustling to the football and didn't let any of the dozens of short routes -- the swing tosses to running back Roger Craig and the quick slants to Rice and wide receiver John Taylor -- turn into 80-yard touchdown plays.Threw the ball well. The Redskins will never say it, but they clearly believe the 49ers are vulnerable, especially at cornerback. The Redskins talk about being thin at cornerback, but privately they say their own Darrell Green, Martin Mayhew and Brian Davis are better than San Francisco's left-side starter, Darryl Pollard.

The Redskins might also be catching the 49ers at the right time, especially since the San Francisco offensive line didn't play a preseason game together. Guy McIntyre and Jesse Sapolu were training-camp holdouts and Harris Barton was recently shifted to right guard.

That line had a bad night. The 49ers rushed for only 53 yards and Montana was sacked six times.

But the Redskins say it's important to remember one other thing: The 49ers may have been outplayed in some areas, but they still won.

"They won when they weren't on top of their game, and that's what good teams do," Redskins special teams coach Wayne Sevier said. "They pile up some wins early before they jell. You've got to win some early so your stretch drive is meaningful. Last year, we didn't win enough early, so our stretch drive didn't get us into the playoffs."

For that, the Redskins point to one man: Montana.

The 49ers believe that if they stay close, Montana will find a way to win. He's surrounded by terrific people at the skill positions, but dozens of games come down to his ability to make a correct split-second decision.

The Redskins say they won't be intimidated at Candlestick Park or by the sight of the 49ers. But it's clear the respect they have for Montana borders on awe.

"He's amazing," Redskins tackle Darryl Grant said. "He just reads the field very well and makes the right decision so quickly. It's like he's got a computer chip in there that's doing it. He's just uncanny. He makes the right moves and the right decisions, and he does it fast."

Middle linebacker Kurt Gouveia: "They've got a great leader and that's where it starts. They come into the huddle and he's got a fire in his eyes. His players have been around him enough to know that if there's any way to win the game, he'll find it."

The Redskins admit that they can play their defense perfectly, and if the game is close in the fourth quarter, Montana could be one or two plays away from winning.

Meanwhile, Gibbs will appeal to the Redskins on several levels, including one-on-one competition with the player at each position.

For instance, Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien will be making his 22nd career start. That's 123 fewer than Montana, but it's a chance for Rypien to show a few million people he may someday deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.

"One of the thrills of winning is to see how you matched up against the other guy at your position when it's over," Rypien said. "The thing that impresses you about him is that in big games, one they've had to have, he has risen to the top. Their whole team has a confidence factor that comes with having pulled so many close games out and winning so many big games. They feel they're going to get it done."

Gibbs: "Those are the days you live for and play for. You want to be compared to the best. You want that opportunity to prove yourself. I wouldn't know how it feels because I was never that good a player. But it's got to be special."

There are even more obvious examples, especially Rice vs. Green, a matchup featuring a Cadillac cornerback and a Rolls Royce receiver.

"I consider him the best," Green said of Rice. "He's proven it. I haven't had a banner game against him and he hasn't killed me. We'll see."

Rice said about the same thing of Green, adding, "He has to be the top defensive back. He has great speed. You can beat him, and if the ball is not thrown on time, he can recover and make the play. I have my work cut out for me."

Overall, the Redskins say the 49ers are special for a variety of reasons: outstanding personnel and coaching, an owner willing to spend money, a terrific quarterback and -- something not to be overlooked -- a tradition of winning.

"They have a long history of watching their guys play," Gibbs said, "and they know what they can call on them to do. They've been to four Super Bowls doing it their way and they've been through a lot of crunch times with these guys. They don't panic."