SAN FRANCISCO, JAN. 12 -- Which came first for the San Francisco 49ers: their timely luck that would make any leprechaun envious or the skill that has them on the brink of a third straight Super Bowl and being called the greatest team ever?
The 49ers have a splendid mix of both. Or maybe it's luck and skill. Whatever, San Francisco's 28-10 NFC divisional playoff win over the Washington Redskins at Candlestick Park illustrated that at about this time of year -- playoff time -- the ball always bounces San Francisco's way.
It bounces off the fingertips of 49ers pass rusher Charles Haley and into the hands of nose tackle Michael Carter, who lumbers 61 yards for a touchdown. It glides past the outstretched hand of Washington's Darrell Green, and to Jerry Rice's chest for a touchdown. It floats over intended Redskins wide receiver Ricky Sanders, and into the waiting arms of cornerback Darryl Pollard for a drive-halting interception.
The 49ers may have more talent and skill than any team in the NFL. They have two consecutive Super Bowl titles to prove that right now no one is better. But it can't be denied that it sometimes seems as if the 49ers' pockets are stuffed with four-leaf clovers.
Against the Redskins -- and other teams in the past -- everything simply went right for San Francisco.
"They say luck is for rabbits," said 49ers tight end Jamie Williams. "Well, maybe we have a lot of rabbits stashed somewhere, I don't know. But I do know that we make our own luck. That's our sword. That's what a champion does."
Said safety Dave Waymer: "One sign of a championship team is making plays when you have to. Most of that's skill not luck. But sometimes it takes a little extra something to get the job done. We seem to always have that something -- whatever you want to call it -- when we need it. We're never short of it when it's time for the big game."
Obviously not. Consider:
Four-leaf clover theorem No. 1: Quarterback Joe Montana said the 10-yard touchdown pass to Rice in the second quarter might not have happened if it weren't for an unusual happening. Just before Montana stepped up to throw the ball, wide receiver Mike Sherrard, running across the middle, slammed into an official. Both fell, clearing the middle passing lane for Montana.
"If that didn't happen," Montana said, "I probably wouldn't have thrown the ball.
"When your confidence is high you try to zip that one ball in there you might otherwise have not thrown. You get that zip that might not be there."
Even when he did throw it, it looked as if Green actually tipped the pass. But the ball simply bounced into the hands of Rice.
Four-leaf clover theorem No. 2: When Redskins wide receiver Art Monk slipped behind a 49ers cornerback, safety Johnny Jackson didn't see Monk until it was too late, or so he thought. It looked like a touchdown, but the ball was so poorly underthrown Jackson was able intercept it.
"I knew the cornerback wasn't going to get to it," Jackson said, "and to be honest I wasn't sure if I was going to get to it."
There was also the instance of Ricky Sanders falling down at the 5, and Mark Rypien throwing the ball right to Pollard.
Twice Redskins defenders were in perfect position to make interceptions, but both times the ball found its intended receiver. Backup fullback Harry Sydney launched a 28-yard option pass to tight end Brent Jones and it was defended perfectly by safety Alvin Walton, but Jones caught it anyway.
Four-leaf clover theorem No. 3: When Haley tipped a Rypien pass, it landed in the hands of Carter, who is a hefty 285 pounds. That he went 61 yards without stopping for oxygen is a miracle in itself.
It was a perfect example of the 49ers' skill and luck: The skill came from Haley making the block and Carter making the catch; the luck was that no one was in position to catch the slow-stomping Carter from scoring.
Said 49ers center Jesse Sapolu: "A lot of people say, 'Oh, boy, the 49ers got lucky again.' When you come from behind to win 10 games this year like we have, there's more to it than luck."
Sapolu then smiled and said, "But I'm not going to say we don't get that little bounce every now and then."