SANTA CLARA, CALIF., JAN. 9 -- Quarterback Joe Montana is used to pressure, and that's good, because he'll certainly receive a healthy share of it in the playoffs.

If you believe San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, it appears the 49ers will all but abandon the running game and heap their hopes for a third consecutive Super Bowl on the arm of Montana and the passing game Saturday when they host the Washington Redskins at Candlestick Park. And that's just fine with the NFL's player of the year.

In fact, he thinks the 49ers should have gone this route some time ago.

"I think we got away from some of the things that got us to where we were," Montana said, "and that's throwing the ball all the time. Not every play, but we've been a passing type team to set up the run, not so much a running team that sets up the pass. We're not going to beat the ball into the ground. Our passing game is part of our running game. That's what makes us so successful."

San Francisco spent much of the season trying to prove to other teams -- as well as critics -- that yes, it can run the ball. So the 49ers ran, and ran, and ran some more, but the only thing that happened was their offense suffered, as it averaged nine points and 50 yards fewer in the last five games.

Holmgren said the 49ers have some tough decisions to make. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that the team has to "evaluate what we've done and make some hard decisions on how we approach the next few games."

"You know what?" he told the newspaper, "we have to do what we do better. You get to outguessing yourself or thinking too much. They think we're going to pass, so they're going to dare us to run, so we're going to run. You get into all that stuff.

"We're coaching like crazy. The players are trying hard. You can't put a square peg in a round hole. You reach a point where you say, 'Hey, okay, we tried, everyone's working hard, but it's not happening the way we would like it to happen, so let's . . . do what we think we do best.' "

Which is rely on Montana and Rice, the latter becoming only the third player in history to catch at least 100 passes in a season. He also had a league-high 13 touchdowns.

To say Montana had another great season is like saying an election campaign is going to become dirty. It's expected. Montana completed 61.7 percent of his passes, threw for 3,944 yards and 26 touchdowns, did a few Pepsi commercials with singer Ray Charles, and was voted the league's MVP by the Associated Press.

He managed to be damaging to other teams even while they tried every form of Montana damage control possible. Really, only the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 25, using their prevent defense for most of the game, severely hurt Montana, intercepting him three times. Yet he still was 22 of 37 for 235 yards and two touchdowns.

Montana also believes that maybe the 49ers were trying to be something they weren't this year by running the ball more than usual.

"For a while there," he said, "we were being manipulated into trying to have to run the ball, or thinking we had to run. It's never been a major part of our offense. It has always been a big part, because you need a running game. But we're not New York or Washington. We'll run four or five {running} plays all day long."

"I think if we pass the ball down the field, make big catches, then that would help open up the running game," Rice said. "If you make them respect you deep, well, they can't cover everything at once. And the pass has always been our best play."

What makes Montana special is that he adjusts well to these types of situations. When San Francisco won the the Super Bowl in 1981, it didn't finish among the top 10 rushing teams in the NFL. No team since then has been able to win the Super Bowl without ranking among the top 10 rushers in the league.

The fact San Francisco is 14-2 despite some of its problems on offense is a tribute to both Montana's skill and the team's ability to overcome the problems other teams present. And Montana has played only sparingly in the last three games after getting a helmet to the groin on Dec. 9 against Cincinnati.

"I had a good year until the last four games or so and teams started playing us differently," Montana said, "and we started doing some things differently. And I think from that point on it reflects more upon the team. So it says a lot for this whole team.

"I think up to a point I've had as good a year {as last year}. And then we hit a kind of lull where we were really trying to get our running game going and when we didn't, we were in some tough situations throwing the ball. So there was a lot more pressure already added to the pressure of our passing game anyway. I think we had a pretty good year all around."

Said 49ers safety Ronnie Lott: "Joe, as great as he is, he doesn't go up and down. He remains at that high level."

Added linebacker Matt Millen: "People always ask me what he's like and I tell them the same thing. He's got the personality of a stone and he's a great quarterback. However, that stone is a diamond."

As far as the Redskins are concerned, they also expect Montana to throw more. "They've kind of abandoned the run," said defensive end Charles Mann. "They're not running the football as much as they have in the past. I don't know if we can prevent him from having the kind of {playoff} games he's accustomed to but we're certainly going to try."

Mann was asked if there is anything unique about San Francisco's offensive line, to which he replied: "There's nothing unique about them other than Joe Montana being behind them."