1989 NFC Championship
January 14, 1990
49ers 30 — Rams 3
Joe Montana put on a quarterbacking clinic at the 1989 NFC Championship Game, ending the Los Angeles Rams season and sending the 49ers to a second-consecutive Super Bowl.
Prior to this Sunday's matchup, this was the only postseason game ever played between the two storied rivals who have met 144 times in the regular season. Since their first clash in 1950, the 49ers posted 75 wins over the Rams, with Montana engineering 13 of those victories as the starting quarterback. In the 1989 NFC Championship Game, "Joe Cool" was at his masterful best.
Despite an early morning rainstorm that rendered the Candlestick Park field wet and sloppy, 64,769 Faithful fans—the largest crowd in 49ers history at the time and the 75th-consecutive sellout—were ready for action. They got their money's worth.
George Seifert, a San Francisco native who was keenly aware of the 49ers-Rams rivalry, was in his first season as head coach of his hometown team. After posting a 14-2 regular season record, Seifert's club was firing on all cylinders in the weeks leading up to the title matchup with Los Angeles
After spotting the Rams a 3-0 lead on a Mike Lansford field goal early in the opening period, Montana quickly took control. He needed just 11 minutes to guide the 49ers to 21 unanswered points.
San Francisco's initial score came early in the second quarter after a brilliant 13-play, 89-yard drive. Montana completed five passes for 67 yards and capped it with a 20-yard dart to wide open TE Brent Jones.
"It had to be a blown coverage," Jones said. "I just slipped down the middle and nobody covered me."
49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, the man who dialed up the play, saw it much differently.
"When the ball is snapped, I usually watch the coverage to see if it is what we expected when we called the play," Holmgren said. "If it is, then I look at Joe to see if he sees what I see. That happened on the 20-yard touchdown pass to Brent Jones. I was excited because I saw they were in the right coverage. But by the time I looked at Joe, he already had thrown the ball."
In other words, Montana's immediate recognition of the Rams coverage and pin-point passing developed quicker than even Holmgren could assess.
Fritz Shurmer, the Rams defensive coordinator that day, also marveled at Montana's field awareness.
"I've never observed anybody in this game since I've been coaching who has the ability to make more plays happen, especially in critical situations," he said.
After the ensuing kickoff, the 49ers defense did its part. Rams QB Jim Everett tried to sneak a pass by Don Griffin but the 49ers shifty defensive back deflected the ball in the direction of DB Tim McKeyer who picked it off and raced 27 yards to the Los Angeles 27 yard line.
From there, the 49ers needed just five plays to find the end zone again. RB Roger Craig picked up six yards on the ground and nabbed a 15-yard swing pass from Montana before plowing in from the one to give the 49ers a 14-3 lead.
Montana was not finished. With 3:10 remaining in the first half, the 49ers took possession on their own 13 yard line and skillfully moved the ball 87 yards on 14 plays. Montana completed 8-of-11 passes for 85 yards while connecting with five different receivers. He capped the march with an 18-yard strike to WR John Taylor and the 49ers took a 21-3 lead into the locker room.
"That's vintage," Seifert said of his offensive leader. "He keeps getting better and better. Obviously we're very fortunate to have a quarterback with his skills and his determination and his leadership ability."
Los Angeles actually had a chance to break the game open in the first quarter, but San Francisco's All-Pro safety Ronnie Lott did his best Superman imitation to come to the rescue.
Leading 3-0, the Rams advanced to San Francisco's 40 yard line. That is when Rams QB Jim Everett found WR Flipper Anderson alone in the 49ers secondary for what seemed like a sure touchdown.
"I didn't know if I could get there in time," Lott said. "But when he threw the ball, I saw the trajectory and I knew I could get there."
Lott's sudden burst of speed allowed him to tip the ball away from Anderson at the last moment. 49ers LB Keena Turner was expecting the worst but later conceded it was unwise to underestimate his future Pro Football Hall of Fame teammate.
"When I saw the wide receiver free, I said, 'Oh man, six!' But the old man (30-year old Lott), he can still run," Turner said. "Everett thought that was six too, because he didn't see Ronnie either."
In the third quarter, San Francisco's defense took control of the game. On the Rams three possessions, they managed just 22 net yards. Lott ended one possession with an interception he returned 14 yards to set up K Mike Cofer's field goal attempt.
Late in the third period, the 49ers defensive line put an end to any hopes of a Rams comeback. Everett, who threw for 4,310 yards and a league-leading 29 touchdowns during the regular season, suddenly developed a bad case of happy feet. On a third-and-10 at the Rams 21 yard line, he dropped back to pass, danced in the pocket and apparently saw the ghost of 49ers DE Charles Haley. Everett inexplicably dove to the turf without being touched, a gesture that seemed to indicate surrender to several 49ers defenders.
"That signaled the end for them," nose tackle Pete Kugler said.
Defensive end Larry Roberts, who was credited with the phantom sack, agreed.
"I knew it was over right there," he said.
Indeed, it turned out to be a rough day for Everett. He completed just 44 percent of his passes for 141 yards and was intercepted three times. The 49ers defense limited the Rams chances, giving up just 156 total yards and nine first downs. Meanwhile, San Francisco controlled the football nearly twice as long as the Rams, 39:48 to 20:12.
"It was maybe the best defensive game we've played against one of the more difficult offenses we face each year," said Seifert, who was the 49ers defensive backs coach, then defensive coordinator under Bill Walsh from 1980-1988. "Their scheme, the type of personnel that they have, makes it extremely difficult to defense. And the way Everett's been playing, for our defense to do what they did today, they had to come up with a special effort. I'm extremely proud of that effort."
Montana completed 26-of-30 throws for 262 yards in the game. Jerry Rice recorded six catches for 55 yards and FB Tom Rathman posted six receptions for 48 yards. Craig recorded 94 rushing yards and another 40 yards on three receptions.
But the 49ers receiver who earned the most acclaim among his teammates was Oakland native Mike Sherrard. After spending two seasons rehabilitating a series of broken legs, he caught his first pass in nearly three years and finished with two receptions for 21 yards.
The victory propelled San Francisco to Super Bowl XXIV in New Orleans to meet the Denver Broncos. 49ers tackle Bubba Paris acknowledged the team's next destination as he jogged off the field shouting "Gumbo! Catfish! Gumbo! Catfish!"
Like all the players who participated in the NFL title game, Bubba earned an extra $18,000 in playoff money to spend on gumbo in the French Quarter.
After the 49ers throttled the Broncos 55-10 at the Louisiana Superdome, he also received his third Super Bowl ring.