When the San Francisco 49ers take on the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game Sunday, it’s hard to believe that the NFC West rivals will only be playing each other in an NFL Playoff game for the second time in franchise history.
The first and only meeting came in the 1989 NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park, and the Rams are definitely hoping for a different outcome this time. Back then, the quarterback situation for the 49ers was very different than what it is today.
No one was making fun of the 49ers quarterback as the decade of the 1980s was coming to a close. This was the decade of standout stars across the sports world. The NHL had Wayne Gretzky. The NBA had the coast-to-coast legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
And in the NFL, it was Joe Montana, the man they called Joe Cool, who had led the 49ers to three Super Bowl titles in the decade, including the season before in 1988, all the way down to the game-clinching touchdown drive against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl 23.
That game was the finale for the coaching career of Bill Walsh. Now, with George Siefert at the helm, it would be Montana’s turn to have his final championship run with the 49ers. The difference, of course, was that none of it was planned. But in the moment, it was vintage Montana, and the Rams never knew what hit them. Literally.
The Rams were no match for Montana’s 49ers in the 1989 NFC Championship Game
The Rams had advanced to the 1989 NFC Championship by knocking off the New York Giants in overtime in the Divisional Round, with wide receiver Flipper Anderson scoring on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Jim Everett.
And at the start of the NFC Championship, it appeared Everett and Anderson were on the verge of stunning the favored 49ers at Candlestick. Already leading 3-0, Everett thought he had Anderson open for a score and a 10-0 lead. But Ronnie Lott broke up the play and Rams were forced to punt.
That was the end of the competitive phase of the game. The 49ers would score the game’s next 30 points for a 30-3 victory to punch their ticket to Super Bowl 24.
Montana was at his Hall of Fame best, completing 26 of 30 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns. After the Anderson incompletion, Montana led the 49ers to three touchdown drives in the second quarter for a 21-3 halftime lead.
The 49ers defense, after Everett’s early success, throttled the Rams’ offense, limiting Everett to 16-for-36 passing for 141 yards and three interceptions. It was so bad that at one point in the second half, Everett felt pressure that wasn’t there and literally sacked himself, dropping to the ground in anticipation of a hit that never came. The “Phantom Sack” set in motion a series of events that led to Everett decking talk-show host Jim Rome on live TV in 1994, after Rome continuously taunted Everett with the nickname, “Chris,” as in Evert, as in questioning his toughness because of this play.
Montana made it four Super Bowl titles in nine years in record-setting rout
No one questioned anything about Joe Montana, other than whether he would run out of fingers for all his Super Bowl rings. After dispatching the Rams, Montana and the 49ers put on the beatdowns to end all beatdowns in Super Bowl 24 against John Elway’s Denver Broncos, racing to a 27-3 halftime lead in an eventual 55-10 victory, the largest blowout in Super Bowl history.
It was a devastating performance in every facet of the game. Montana completed 22-of-29 passes for 297 yards and a record five touchdown passes, three to Jerry Rice, which was also a record.
Montana would set eight single-game and career Super Bowl record in this game. Besides the five touchdowns, Montana set a single-game record with 13 straight completions. In his four Super Bowls, Montana was 83-for-122 overall for 1,142 yards and 11 touchdowns, all records. His 68% completion percentage and 127.8 passer rating were also records.
Leonard Marshall ended the dream in Montana’s final big game with the 49ers
All that was left for Montana to accomplish was lead the 49ers to a third straight Super Bowl title, something no team had done before, or since. And the 49ers were one game away for taking their shot at history, reaching the 1990 NFC Championship Game against their bitter NFC East rivals, the New York Giants.
But even with the Giants forced to start backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler, the ferocious Giants defense kept Big Blue in the game, and in the fourth quarter, Montana, scrambling away from a near sack by Lawrence Taylor, never saw Leonard Marshall bearing down on him from his blind side and took a frightening hit to the back that drove Montana face down into the turf.
And in that moment, Joe Montana’s career with the San Francisco 49ers was effectively ended. The Giants won the game, and Montana, his already operated-on back severely re-injured, would not play again until late in the 1992 season, having permanently lost his job to Steve Young.
The 49ers would trade Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs after the 1992 season, marking the 1989 season as the last championship campaign of Montana’s career.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference