Joe Montana victimized Martin Mayhew on his fourth pass of the day for 12 yards. He victimized him two passes later for 26, and, a couple of possessions after that, went over his head for 49 yards and a touchdown to John Taylor.

This regular season would end with almost all of the Washington Redskins saying nice things about cornerback Mayhew. "A great season," defensive chief Richie Petitbon said.

They would talk about his intelligence and toughness, and would say that of all the Redskins who deserve to be proud of their efforts this season, none should be prouder than Mayhew, who has been tested by Dan Marino, Phil Simms, Troy Aikman and a half-dozen others, and proven he belongs in the NFL.

Mayhew would finish the regular season with a team-high seven interceptions, including four in a four-week stretch in November and December. But he would have one very rough day at the beginning, and now credits a lot of his late-season success with one trial-by-fire afternoon against Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.

That came in Week 2 at Candlestick Park when Montana passed for 390 yards, and Mayhew's man, Taylor, caught eight passes for 160 yards. The 49ers won, 26-13.

This week, as the 49ers and Redskins prepare to meet in the second round of the NFC playoffs Saturday at Candlestick, the focus again will be on the Washington cornerbacks and the San Francisco passing game.

Darrell Green again will be assigned to Jerry Rice in a matchup of a Cadillac defender against a Rolls-Royce receiver. And on the other side, Taylor and Mayhew again will spend the afternoon together on national television. At various times, Green and Mayhew will have some help, but the Redskins are pinning much of their hope on the shoulders of their corners.

"I'm a lot more experienced than I was then," Mayhew said. "I think then I wasn't playing my game or my technique. Ever since then, I've tried to play my game and do the things I wanted to do and not put myself in a bad position."

Mayhew said he didn't pout after that loss, but "realized I was getting caught up in doing some different things. That game against the 49ers, for instance, I was trying to take away the quick slant. I was really concerned about not letting them run that route. I jumped in to take that away, and even if they complete it, it's a seven- or eight-yard pass. But instead, Taylor got outside me and went for 49."

Mayhew said he had a talk with himself on the long flight home and realized he'd become so caught up in not giving up the big play that he'd forgotten the essence of the cornerback's role: the one-on-one matchup in open field.

"Now, rather than guess routes or what they're trying to do, I just play my technique," he said. "I square up and play a guy head to head and it's me against the receiver. After that game, I also realized if I didn't break up some balls or intercept some balls or make some plays, they'd never stop coming at me. They'd keep coming and coming. I think I broke up two or three passes in the Dallas game and took it from there."

Now, he has come full circle. The Redskins say he has become perhaps their best pure tackler, and his first-quarter interception against Marino started the Redskins toward a 42-20 victory.

The Washington defense is on such a roll now that it has allowed seven points or fewer in four of its last six games. In last week's 20-6 elimination of Philadelphia, Mayhew and Green held Eagle wide receivers to one catch.

"I'm excited about this next game," Mayhew said. "I've looked forward to it ever since that first game. I think after that game I began developing some consistency and I think I've been pretty consistent since then. John Taylor can definitely play. He got my Pro Bowl vote."

Mayhew is close to getting Green's Pro Bowl vote. "This game will make you go in and bang the locker room wall," he said. "Martin's biggest asset is the way he handles things. He's kind of an iron man. He has been beaten. I've been beaten. If you play this game, you'll be beaten.

"But it's what you do on the next play or in the next game that count. I remember one game he was having a tough time, and I went over to tell him to hang in. He looked at me and said, 'I'm all right.' He meant it, too. I looked at him and backed off. He's the type that doesn't need to hear anything. He's really focused."

Green won't get the afternoon off. At times, he has gone a half game or more without getting a ball thrown in his direction. That won't happen Saturday. Rice became the third wide receiver ever to catch 100 passes, and he caught six against Green earlier this season.

But unlike almost any other team, the Redskins will leave Green alone with Rice in some one-on-one situations.

"He can be an intimidator if you let him," Rice said. "I know I've got my work cut out for me and he knows that, also. It's just him and me. It's almost just like going back in the back alley and seeing who's the best guy. . . . One mistake and it can result in a big play."

Green also said he's looking forward to another meeting. Last time around, Rice caught a 12-yard touchdown pass over Green and also had a 30-yard catch. But Green also intercepted a fourth-quarter pass at a time when the Redskins were struggling to stay in the game.

"That was kind of a fun day except that we didn't win," Green said. "He tipped a ball and made a great play on that long one."

Mayhew is the quiet one. He has a degree in business from the University of Florida and was working in a bank when the Buffalo Bills made him a 10th-round pick in 1988. He still has law school in the back of his mind, although this season has pushed that timetable back.

He seldom does interviews and the Bills were shocked when they left him unprotected -- and lost him -- in 1989 Plan B free agency. That's not Green, who doesn't shy from reporters and leads a high-profile life in the coummunity with his charity work and personal appearances.

But together, they're a good team. This season began with the Redskins desperate for another cornerback. A.J. Johnson was expected to miss the season after undergoing knee surgery and Mayhew had started just seven games.

"We're better and we're more experienced," Green said. "We're very comfortable with who we have out there."