SANTA CLARA, CALIF., OCT. 18 -- It's reached the point where every time you think Joe Montana can do no more, he does.

Take last week. He threw for 476 yards and six touchdowns against Atlanta, then all but yawned about it.

"There were times I was throwing well, but there were other times I didn't hit people I should have," he said, noting that he missed two receivers open for touchdowns and threw two interceptions.

Well, nobody's perfect. It's just that Montana seems to be.

Here he is, better than ever at age 34, even after four Super Bowl trophies, three Super Bowl MVP awards and a long list of records.

With a running game ranked 26th in the NFL -- Roger Craig has been ineffective and injured -- Montana has averaged 339 passing yards a game, with 14 touchdowns. At that rate, he'd throw for 5,794 yards and 45 scores, 700 yards better than Dan Marino's single-season record and three touchdowns shy of Marino's record 48.

"I've never played with anyone like him," said wide receiver Mike Sherrard.

"You go down on a pass pattern and you read the defense and think he'll throw to the tight end. All of a sudden the ball's coming to you. It's amazing but he always knows who's open. He makes you stay constantly on his toes."

Montana was sacked four times and hit a dozen other times as the Falcons lined up in eight-man fronts and blitzed almost every play.

"We won't be able to do that all year," said tackle Harris Barton, the leader of the offensive line.

On the other hand, think of what Montana gives you.

The 49ers have been working diligently on the running game this week, even with Craig (sore knee) questionable for Sunday. The assumption is that Montana's brilliance will loosen up defenses and provide more running room for whoever the 49ers use.

If Montana can do what he's doing without a running game, what will happen when (if?) San Francisco gets one.

Age doesn't seem to be a factor -- the only player ahead of him in the quarterback ratings is Phil Simms, who turns 35 in November. Warren Moon, 33, leads the AFC in passing and Steve DeBerg, 35, who preceded Montana as San Francisco's quarterback, is fourth.

So it doesn't seem unlikely that Montana could be doing the same things in three or four years, which looks to be what he plans. If that's the case, he'll be in range of Fran Tarkenton's all-time yardage record of 47,003 -- going into Sunday's game with Pittsburgh, Montana has 32,846.

Moreover, how many more records will he break?

With 1,792 yards already this season he's sure -- barring injury -- to break the record for most 3,000-yard seasons (six) he shares with Dan Fouts and Marino, although Marino, 30, may go right past him some day. He already leads the all-time ratings at 94.0 -- Roger Staubach (83.6) is a distant second.

And, of course, his rating of 112.6 last year is a record.

So what does Montana think about all this?

"You never really appreciate what you've done," he said, "until after it's over."