SAN FRANCISCO, JAN. 12 -- It could be called the game of desire. Anybody even remotely connected with the San Francisco 49ers wanted to beat the Washington Redskins and move a large step closer to an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory. And they firmly believed they would.

"In the warm-ups I could tell we were focused," said 49ers tackle Steve Wallace. "There was no way we could be flat today."

The 49ers' fans wanted it badly too. They were out in force by mid-morning in the vast Candlestick Park parking lots, so early that the rim of "The 'Stick" looked like a UFO in the morning fog and overcast. They came to do some hard celebrating, cheering even before there was anything to cheer.

Most of all, Joe Montana wanted it. He'd confess later, after brushing aside Washington 28-10 with several strokes of genius, that a third straight title was "on the back of our minds."

Maybe if they were playing someone else, maybe then the Redskins would have won handily or sprung an upset and preserved their dream of a successful uphill voyage to Tampa and the Super Bowl. Maybe -- if they were playing someone other than Montana and, oh yes, the rest of the 49ers.

Did Montana ever want this victory? The way he passed today, it seemed as if he could put a bullet through the eye of a needle. Once more, he caused winner and loser alike to walk away saying that he's the greatest quarterback there is, maybe the greatest there ever was.

"Montana really comes through in the clutch," said Redskins tackle Jim Lachey.

Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs hailed Montana as "probably the best player ever at that position."

At least the Redskins could look at the bright side on the long flight home; their season might have been rubbed out but it was by the hand of pro football's master.

Today, Montana engraved some flourishes on his already impressive work, which includes the performance of the ages two years ago when he beat Cincinnati in the last seconds of a Super Bowl the Bengals thought was theirs.

The most impressive stroke came in the second period in the form of a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice, a money-man receiver if there ever was one, slanting in toward the goal post. The record will show it to be a 10-yard scoring toss that gave the 49ers a 14-10 lead that they never relinquished. But what a gorgeous touch and, like the artist, Montana stood there a moment as if to admire it.

Montana had to have fired without so much as a flinch, otherwise he could not have gotten the speed he needed. The ball somehow zipped past Darrell Green.

The next time Montana got his hands on the ball, he forced one to admit he possesses an uncanny ability to combine his skills with the diverse talent of others available to him. An opponent doesn't know what Montana is going to do next until he sees it unfolding.

First, Montana did the improbable, shooting the 49ers out of a deep hole at their 11 with a 32-yard pass, not to a wide receiver but to running back Roger Craig. Two plays later, Montana did what seemed the impossible.

From the San Francisco 46, he again threw down the right sideline. Tight end Brent Jones was running full tilt, looking straight ahead, as was Redskins linebacker Andre Collins. They kept running and the ball kept soaring and the question was who would turn. It was Jones. Two plays later, Montana passed for an easy score. It was 21-10, and the Redskins' fate was sealed. Montana ended the day with 22 completions in 31 attempts for 274 yards and two touchdowns.

For what he had made look daring, Montana offered a calm explanation. "My confidence was pretty good," he said matter-of-factly. "I'd been throwing the ball pretty well this week in practice. So you might throw the ball, stick it in there, take a chance, whereas other games you might not."

Gibbs was left to marvel about Montana, "On a number of those plays, if the ball had been thrown three inches either way, we could have made the plays on defense."

A 61-yard interception return for a touchdown by plodding nose tackle Michael Carter, who looked to be running in slow motion, ended with 57 seconds remaining and heightened the San Francisco celebration. The run was enough to loosen up 49ers Coach George Seifert, dour all week but all smiles in victory. Said Seifert, rubbing his gray hair, "One player turned to me and said, 'How's that for taking time off the clock?' "

The 49ers fans loved almost every minute of the game -- afterwards many in the crowd of 65,292 headed out to resume their morning celebrations. It was quickly evident how badly they wanted this game.

Skies began brightening even as every imaginable vehicle climbed Cardiac Hill, rolled across the asphalt and dropped their tailgates. It was party time, an extraordinary sampling of pre-game America at play.

While the fine wines and linen-covered tables made it seem something like an autumn Saturday in the Ivy League, the variety of vehicles was something out of a bumper-to-bumper mob scene at the Daytona 500. If they had wheels, they were here: Cherokees, Broncos, All-Tracs, Sierra Classics, Rams, a Dakota with a "Skins in Tampa" sign in the window, Explorers, Econolines, a Silverado Camper Special, Jimmy 4x4s, a sleek Chevy van painted in 49ers' colors with the California plate 4TY 9RS, an old black pickup with a huge 49ers' helmet atop the cab, Sunraders, Voyagers, Vacationeers . . . .

Beneath the Fuji blimp, the smell of charcoal choked the fresh air off the bay. Thick sausage sizzled in pans; chicken, burgers and steaks were served up in abundance as big guys -- 49ers' fans -- settled back in lawn chairs. "Now this is living," one said, turning on some sounds.

On radio stations that began with "K", you could hear country music, the Buffalo-Miami game punctuated by listeners' chuckles about the snowy East as well as plenty of 49ers' chat up and down the dials. You could hear it all except, that is, when the big guys were blowing fog horns.

By the time Huey Lewis and the News sang the national anthem, some fans felt themselves ready to take on the Redskins. As events proved, they weren't needed, even if they could have gotten to the visitors. Taking a cue from world soccer capitals, the 49ers had barricades completely around the playing field. Everything but a moat.

With attention riveted on Montana and the 49ers' drive toward another Super Bowl, one had to wonder whether the right person would notice a message board that flashed: "Irene, Love You! Will you marry me soonest at Harvey's Tahoe wedding chapel? Farley."