SAN FRANCISCO -- What in the world goes on in the mind of Joe Montana? What does a football field look like to him? Does everything seem to move in slow motion? Can he see a split-second into the future? Does he know where men will cut and break before they know it themselves?

What would it feel like to live in his mind's eye for just one, long scoring drive, like the three marches of 74, 80 and 89 yards he created in the first half to dig a hole from which the Redskins never escaped?

"Montana's eyesight must be amazing, like Bob Cousy or Larry Bird. He can see everybody," said Richie Petitbon, whose job it was to devise a plan to stop him. "Believe me, the things he does, people can't do. They really can't. And everybody out there is trying to kill him."

The 49ers' quarterback has never explained and probably can't. His words in victory are like lukewarm oatmeal. To him, self-scrutiny is irrelevant.

Petitbon quoted 49ers linebacker Matt Millen as saying, " 'Joe has the personality of a stone. But the stone is a diamond.' I thought that was a great line."

Has Montana played for so long and seen so much that he's as bored in the pocket, as serene when he scrambles, as it appears? Is everything the 1,000th replay of a movie he knows by heart? Was his team's 28-10 playoff-opening victory and his 22-of-31 passing for 274 yards and two touchdowms, almost a foregone conclusion?

When you duck inside the rush, tiptoe toward the line of scrimmage, then throw a flick-of-the-wrist dart to Jerry Rice that misses Darrell Green's finger by an inch for a 10-yard score, don't you have to say, "That was pretty nice, even for me."?

When you are flushed out of the pocket at your goal line, meander to your right, then loft the fluffiest, most delicately unhurried spiral, far up the right sideline and hit Roger Craig perfectly -- as in "with geometric perfection" -- for a 32-yard gain, don't you have to say: "A foot shorter, a foot longer or foot wider and that would have been incomplete or intercepted. But, hey, I had only to hit a fly speck on the run from 40 yards."?

"Five or six times Montana threw balls that got in there that, three inches one way or the other, we get them," said Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs.

Finally, when you take a quick drop and throw on rhythm, deep and firm, with just the right amount of "air under the ball," and watch as the pass goes between the defender's face mask and his bicep and into your receiver's arms for a 47-yard gain, don't you have to wonder how the devil you do it?

Year after year. Big game after big game. And, maybe again this season, Super Bowl after Super Bowl after Super Bowl.

"I hope they go on and do their record thing," said Gary Clark of the 49ers' attempt to be the first team to win three straight Super Bowls. "They'll win, if Montana stays hot, like he has for the last 10 years."

The 49ers are two wins away from ending any remaining argument -- that is, if there is any remaining argument -- about which is the greatest team in NFL history. However, the issue of the greatest 49er of all, and, probably, the greatest quarterback of all, has just about become moot.

"I'm really proud of us. Our guys did just what we wanted them to do," said Petitbon. "Sometimes you have to give credit to the other guy. Today, my hat goes off to Joe Montana.

" . . . Yeah, their quarterback is pretty good. At four million a year, he might be underpaid. . . . Everything a quarterback has to be, he is. He's the best I've ever seen and I've seen a lot. I hope he retires soon."

This was a day, like the 1981 postseason, when the 49ers simply abandoned their sickly running game immediately and said, "Joe, save us."

"We did what we set out to do -- flush him out of the pocket and take away his first read. . . . But that was good news and bad news," said Petitbon. "The confusion was the good news. What Montana did with it was the bad news."

"Against a normal, good quarterback, we win," said Monte Coleman, who became the first player to intercept Montana in 180 postseason passes. He ought to bronze the ball. "Most of the passes he completed most quarterbacks wouldn't even try. It's hard to understand why he even wants to throw those passes."

Even the Redskins' strapping 6-foot-4, 234-pound Mark Rypien with the cannon arm and the tree-trunk legs seemed placid in this game, further highlighting Montana. Rypien played in pain on a bad ankle and threw for 361 courageous yards. Yet the big plays he could not make were the kind Montana loves.

In the third quarter, Washington came knocking -- third and goal from the 7. Art Monk, the warhorse who caught 10 balls for 163 yards, broke free heading to the corner of the end zone. In that spot, Montana would toss a soft, high pass that is either a touchdown or an incompletion. Instead, rolling left, Rypien threw a sad, short interception that Johnny Jackson couldn't miss.

In the fourth quarter, still trailing 21-10 and still dominating both sides of the line of scrimmage as they had throughout the game, the Redskins knocked again. On first down from the 15, Ricky Sanders broke free at the goal line, then fell, and Rypien gunned his fastball. The ball was tipped at the line and floated down to Darryl Pollard for a fair catch of an interception.

Bad luck? No way. Slow feet are part of Rypien, just like Montana's syrupy waltzing in the pocket is part of his signature. Montana throws between arms -- on purpose. Rypien fires through the forest and hopes. The 49ers ultimately iced matters when Michael Carter killed 61 yards of grass after intercepting another batted Rypien pass.

Still, there were a number of might-have-beens for the Redskins, such as with nine minutes to play. They went on fourth and five from the 49ers 14. Rypien had Clark open in the end zone. Defensive back Eric Davis clobbered him in the head with a forearm before the pass arrived. Obvious interference for first and goal at the 1 -- and probably a 21-17 game.

But the official froze. No call. And no replay, despite the conclusive nature of the film, because interference isn't a replayable decision.

"I just got blasted as I was going up for the ball. I figured it would be a flag for sure," said Clark. "I pleaded my case to the judge, but he threatened to throw me out of the game if I kept it up. Today, I wish they had instant reply for interference."

San Francisco had too much Montana and too much good fortune at the right time. That's how history gets made in sports. These 49ers appear to have an appointment with destiny. As long as Montana stays hot -- like he has for the last 10 years.