ATLANTA -- Atlanta had traveled light years. Just four games into rebuilding, the Falcons were contenders, crashing into second place in the National Football Conference West and threatening to crash the defending world champion San Francisco 49ers.
Then Joe Montana hit town.
With all the talk the Falcons leveled at the 49ers and with all the energy Atlanta directed into yesterday's game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Montana simply stepped back in the pocket to school -- and scald -- the defense.
He threw for 476 yards and six touchdowns -- both team records -- and the 49ers pushed the Falcons back into the pack with a 45-35 whipping.
"I don't know of a quarterback that can play any better than that," Falcons coach Jerry Glanville said. "He taught us a lesson we didn't want to learn."
Wide receiver Andre Rison thought for maybe 30 seconds, deep reflection in locker room time.
"What champions are made of, that's what they taught us," he said. "We're there. The talent is there. Maybe we can take a page of their book and learn how to win. Hopefully, we'll carry what we learned from this game into next week."
The way the 49ers teach lessons is hard learning. It's been duly recorded. All the last-minute comebacks. The Super Bowl rout of Denver last year. Yesterday, they extended their NFL record of consecutive road victories to 13, moved to 5-0 this season and found out, for them at least, the welcome mat is still out in Atlanta. The Falcons, meanwhile, fell to 2-3.
Atlanta's learning may be even more difficult. Quarterback Chris Miller sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee early in the fourth quarter and his status for next week's game at the Los Angeles Rams is unclear.
The Montana siege started early; he struck just three plays into the game for a 24-yard score to wide receiver Jerry Rice. Atlanta fumbled on the first play, and the 49ers were off and gunning.
Montana connected four more times with his favorite receiver for scores, allowing Rice to tie the NFL record for most touchdown receptions in a game. After the quick strike, Rice also caught touchdowns of 24, 19, 13 and 15, the last giving the 49ers a 45-21 lead that was simply too much for the Falcons to overcome.
This was the same San Francisco team that had scored all of 19 points three weeks ago when these teams met in California. It was the same group against which many of the Falcons had guaranteed a victory.
They hadn't bet on Montana having a career day.
"Our passing game was particularly good today," 49ers coach George Seifert said. "It was the best since I've been a head coach. We used the audible well against the blitz."
Said Montana, who was not terribly impressed with his big day: "I had an off and on day. At times, I played well but not up to the standards of a Super Bowl."
Rice finished with 13 catches for 225 yards. Most of that came at the expense of cornerback Charles Dimry.
Rice beat Dimry to the middle on the first score, then simply out-ran him for other scores. And when Dimry played soft, the 49ers threw underneath.
"We found some success throwing to Dimry's side," Seifert said. we stayed with it."
The effect was Dimry "Flambe." Following the game, Dimry was visibly uncomfortable. He rolled his eyes when asked about defending Rice.
"When he's on," Dimry said, "you can't. Jerry is a great receiver. He had a good day and I didn't. It was definitely a very long day."
It wasn't just Rice, either. Take away his yardage and Montana still threw for 251 yards. Brent Jones (five), Mike Sherrard (four) and Tom Rathman (four) each had four or more catches. Sherrard caught the other touchdown throw by Montana from 43 yards.
And it wasn't just Dimry. The Falcons tried most of their game plan -- and then some -- to stop the 49ers quarterback. If they had been able to use the Falcons alumni who showed up for a 25th anniversary celebration, they still might not have.
"Usually we go into a game, we use maybe 50 percent of the game plan we make each week," rookie nose guard Tory Epps said. "Today we used 95, maybe 99 percent. And it still didn't stop him."
Said Glanville: "We did everything I know in football to the quarterback and it didn't seem to matter. . . . I can't wait until that quarterback retires."