SAN FRANCISCO, JAN. 20 -- This is not how the oft-proclaimed greatest quarterback of all time is supposed to leave a championship game. His wife, Jennifer, drove their white Range Rover into the bowels of the stadium. Joe Montana, his right arm in a cast and his face dejected, ducked into the vehicle trying to avoid reporters.

This may have been one of Montana's lowest points in 12 years as a professional football player. The San Francisco 49ers had lost to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game today, 15-13, ending the 49ers' hopes of winning three consecutive Super Bowls.

And Montana had not only suffered a broken right hand in the game, he had a badly bruised sternum as a result of blindside hit by defensive end Leonard Marshall.

Facing third and nine from his 23 about five minutes into the fourth quarter, Montana rolled right looking for wide receiver Jerry Rice to get free deep. Fullback Tom Rathman had blocked Marshall to the ground and went out into a pass pattern. The 49ers figured Marshall, 285 pounds, couldn't possibly recover quickly enough to get Montana.

Of more immediate concern to Montana was linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who was in the quarterback's face. Somehow, Montana was able to slip Taylor, which few are capable of doing.

That's when Marshall caught him from behind, putting a helmet between Montana's shoulder blades and driving him to the ground.

Marshall said he has had few hits in his career that have been harder.

"It was a clean lick," Marshall said. "I wasn't trying to put him out of the game or end his career . . . but damn, I'm so happy . . . I just can't stand it."

"I still don't know what happened," Montana said. "I'm still having a tough time breathing deeply."

Backup quarterback Steve Young said he ran onto the field, thinking Montana had been knocked unconscious.

"It's rare that I run out on the field like that," he said. "I was worried at first. Then he said he was okay."

"He's the best there ever was but we put a pounding on him today," said Taylor.

"He was frustrated, you could tell. We didn't let him go to Jerry Rice downfield.

"We got to him a lot. Sometimes we sacked him {three times for 14 yards in losses}, sometimes we made contact, sometimes we pressured him. Even on Joe Montana it takes a toll."

"On the first play we got a good shot on him," said safety Dave Duerson. "After the second series, when he left from under center, he was already passive. You could see it. He was expecting to get hit.

"Even when he handed off, he was flinching. When he's in control his handoffs are extended and he relaxes. But when the pressure is on, his handoffs are quick and he's protecting himself.

"We knew it from the first time {Dec. 3 game} they didn't like dogfights."

The 49ers won that first meeting this season, 7-3.

The 49ers apparently tipped off their plays from the way offensive tackles Steve Wallace and Bubba Paris were set in their stances and came up at the snap of the ball.

"This was a tough loss for all of us," said 49ers tight end Jamie Williams, a former Giant. "This demonstrates how tough it is to win as many games as we've won this {15-3} season. But I know we'll be a contender next year." UARTERBACK COMPARISON





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