SAN FRANCISCO -- A still-sweaty Joe Montana edged toward the shower room with a nearly suffocating knot of reporters surrounding him. He'd nearly made it when one shouted, "Joe, what does a team have to do to beat you guys?"
Montana hesitated, smiled an embarrassed smile and said, "I don't know . . . I don't know."
Meant to be evasive, the answer instead was right on the mark. Who does know? Not the Washington Redskins.
In taking their first step toward a third successive Super Bowl title by halting the Redskins, 28-10, yesterday, the San Francisco 49ers got brilliant offensive play in the second quarter from Montana, Jerry Rice and the rest of the receivers. There were important defensive plays, especially in the second half. Key calls (and non-calls) went their way.
They even discovered another scoring threat: nose tackle Michael Carter, who lugged his 330 pounds and the football 61 yards for a touchdown in the final minute after making an interception.
After that, the chant of "Three-Peat," "Three-Peat," that filled Candlestick Park didn't seem far-fetched. In short, San Francisco seems to summon the wherewithal to do what it has to do to win whenever it needs it.
For example when Washington took the fight to the 49ers in the first half. Several times, Montana made big plays out of rapidly deteriorating situations. On the 10-yard touchdown pass to Rice that put San Francisco ahead 14-10, he scrambled up the middle in a third-and-goal-from-the-10 situation and found Rice with an on-the-money pass. Redskins cornerback Darrell Green was in good position and missed batting the ball away seemingly by a fraction of an inch.
"The pass had to be perfect, and it was," said Rice, whose superb concentration was equally important.
Asked if he was worried that Green would tip the ball away, Montana said, "If I'd thought that, I wouldn't have thrown it."
Linebacker Matt Millen said: "With Joe and Jerry, I know we always have a chance to win. When I was playing against them [as a member of the Los Angeles Raiders], I always knew we could lose."
San Francisco won yesterday with more than just offense, though. Johnny Jackson's third-period interception in the end zone of a pass by Mark Rypien halted one Redskins threat, and receiver Ricky Sanders' pratfall later in the quarter resulted in another intercepted pass in the end zone. Soon after, following a rare Montana mistake -- an interception -- Rypien threw for Gary Clark in the end zone. The replay indicated that 49ers cornerback Eric Davis may have interfered with Clark, but no call was made.
"No, there was no interference," Davis said with a straight face. "I was just going for the ball like he was."
When asked if he thought he'd gotten away with one, Davis chuckled and said, "When you ask a defensive back a question like that, what kind of answer do you think you'll get?"
There was no ambiguity, however, from Carter.
Grabbing a pass tipped by defensive end Charles Haley, he lumbered untouched for a score, making a nifty cutback at the 5-yard line to elude pursuing Art Monk, and hauled his ample girth across the goal line with the grace of a Mack truck plowing through three-foot-deep mud.
"It was, uh, effective," Millen said.
"Michael did a great job of running time off the clock," Montana said with a perfect dead pan.
The happy Carter took it all in good grace.
"I thought I was going to die," he said with a laugh, "but I made it. I know the Refrigerator [Chicago defensive lineman William Perry] has scored touchdowns, but I got some distance on mine, which makes it more legitimate."