SAN FRANCISCO -- What has come to be known as "Montana time" for the 49ers occurred with 2:11 to play and San Francisco trailing New Orleans by three points.
Eric Davis' darting, 24-yard punt return had set up the 49ers' offense with a first down on the 50-yard line.
Piece of cake, right? Not this time.
There would be no Montana and no miracle 49ers' finish on one of the most bone-chilling afternoons in Candlestick Park history.
That's because Montana was on the sideline in blue jeans and a red parka, where he had been all day after developing a mysterious -- or maybe not so mysterious -- injury.
Whatever it was -- something legitimate or something phantom in light of the upcoming playoffs -- it kept Montana out and Steve Young in for the entire game.
After the 13-10 loss, Montana remained in the trainer's room, off limits to the media, for an hour. He huddled with Young for several minutes.
When Montana eventually ran a bootleg out a side door, he was chased down a corridor.
"You've just got to talk to the doctors," he said over a shoulder. "Merry Christmas."
Team physicians were not available to elaborate on the injury.
Young said he was informed he would be starting one hour before the game.
"I literally expect to play each week, so when I heard that I was going to start, I was prepared," he said.
Coach George Seifert provided the official explanation on Montana, saying he had a "strained abdominal muscle -- it was something that had bothered him a couple of days ago . . . it didn't bother him in practice.
TC "If this had been a championship game or the playoffs, I believe he could have played. I don't know what caused it.
"At this time I plan to have Joe start next week and play the first half and then have Steve play during the second half."
The development was odd in light of Seifert's strong indications last week that Montana would start against the Saints despite the risk of injury in a meaningless game and despite Young's lack of significant playing time this season.
On Tuesday Seifert had said, "I would doubt that we would just say, 'Hey, Joe, you're not going to start this game,' unless all of a sudden he pulls up lame or something -- which I don't foresee right now. I don't know that he actually needs a rest. I don't see a guy who is tired."
And Montana himself had added to the expectation that he would play, if it was up to him. "No matter what you do on the practice field and how much practice you get, there's nothing like the game," he had said.
L The sudden Montana injury was no big surprise to the Saints.
"Do you want Montana to get rusty, or do you want to give your backup quarterback some playing time?" Saints defensive back Toi Cook asked rhetorically. Then he answered his own question pragmatically.
"We're a pretty physical football team. I don't know if you want to take that chance [of injury] with Montana."
Linebacker Rickey Jackson echoed that theme. "If Joe had been back there, he was going to get some good licks . . . as it was, Young took quite a few."
Young was sacked four times for a loss of 33 yards.
"Some breaks have gone against us this season," Saints coach Jim Mora said. "It's nice to see some go our way finally."