SAN FRANCISCO -- We look at the San Francisco 49ers and we search for flaws that probably don't exist. It gets monotonous after a while watching the best quarterback ever throw to perhaps the best receiver ever. It's hard to work up a sense of suspense when the other team doesn't have a chance. So we imagine the 49ers aren't quite as dominant as they have been.
We point to the numbers that say this particular 49ers team won eight games by six points or less, that they had to come from behind six times in the second half to win. So we develop theories:
The 49ers, with the decline of an injured Roger Craig, can't run the ball anymore. Too many old guys, including Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Bubba Paris, Guy McIntyre and Michael Carter, all over 30. Having avoided decimating injuries the last two years, the team couldn't possibly stay healthy a third straight season. And what about motivation? What possible incentive could there be for a team that has already won two straight Super Bowl titles?
The Niners' Fred Smerlas laughs. "People ask, 'How could they get to be 15-2? They don't have a great runner. This guy is old, that guy is old.' There's been a different theory every week, hasn't there?"
Let's get something straight. This San Francisco team, like four others before it, is phenomenal. Assuming Montana isn't flat on his back with the flu Sunday, the New York Giants won't come within 20. This is no slap at the Giants, a fine team that is capable of beating almost anybody as long as LT and Pepper and Carl Banks line up. But in these Niners, we are watching the Yankees of the 1920s-30s, and Joe Montana is Babe Ruth.
If you're looking for a meaningful stat, how about this one? The 49ers have won seven straight postseason games, and if they win the Super Bowl they will tie the Packers ('61-62, '65-67) for most consecutive playoff wins.
A year ago, we had talked ourselves into believing the Rams, who had already beaten the Niners here during the regular season, had a chance to win the NFC championship game. The final score was 30-3.
Here's the pregame skinny on Sunday's game: The 49ers aren't foolish enough to try to run on the Giants, and the Giants can't run on the 49ers. That boils it down to Montana vs. Jeff Hostetler. Who would you take, a guy who's started five games his entire career, or the greatest ever to play his position?
Passing and defense. That's how the 49ers will avenge that humiliating 49-3 loss in the Meadowlands four years ago. "If we can't run, just let the Magic Man work his game," Smerlas said. "If you can't defend that, who cares if you run?"
We'll stop just short of saying the Giants don't have a chance. As Jim Valvano once said before his North Carolina State team was given no chance to beat Phi Slamma Jamma's Houston team in the 1983 NCAA final: "We got to have a chance; we're playing. We're here. Who else got a chance? UCLA doesn't have a chance, they're at home. Louisville hasn't got a chance, they ain't here."
Okay, so the Giants have a better chance than the Bears or Redskins, but not much. The 49ers have managed to go an entire season finding the tiniest little missteps for which to chastise themselves. "We gave up 460-some yards to the Redskins last week, which is really discouraging," nose tackle Carter said. "Even though we kept them out of the end zone, we don't want that happening again." This, we assume, is the mind-set you must be in to seriously pursue perfection.
The Niners have been obsessed like this since Jan. 9, 1988, when the Vikings waxed them, 36-24, here at The Stick. It remains the most shocking playoff upset since the Raiders coldcocked the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.
Because the Vikings beat a presumptuous team of 49ers that day, the Giants cannot win Sunday. Center Jesse Sapolu talks about it all the time. Current and former 49ers say thinking of that game makes them sick to their stomachs. They had come into the postseason on such a high, they were already talking about potential Super Bowl opponents. Around the practice facility this week, nary a word was mentioned about the AFC title match between Buffalo and the Raiders (a pick'em game the Bills will win only because of home field and Bo Jackson's injury).
The best players to talk to about the 49ers are the ones who have played most of their careers elsewhere, only to wind up here through trades or Plan B and realized they've reached football paradise.
"Joe's the best player to ever play the game and Jerry Rice may be the second best," said Smerlas, who spent his first 11 seasons with Buffalo. "Shoot, I can tell my kids I played with Joe Montana. Everybody comes in with a different theory on how to beat him too. Beat him with pressure, beat him with zones, beat him with different looks. All of a sudden, it's bang, bang, bang, and they leave here going, 'Hey, maybe they are that good.' "