San Francisco There's an old saying in boxing that to beat the champion, you have to knock him out.
It also may apply to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, who is just two victories away from becoming the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls.
If the New York Giants are to deny Montana his bid for the fifth ring, they may have to score a TKO, if not a knockout, of Montana.
There's no secret about the Giants' game plan in the National Football Conference title game today at Candlestick Park: They want to put a lot of pressure on Montana. Assuming that Montana has no lingering effects on the flu that forced him to miss Friday's practice, the Giants know how dangerous Montana is unless they can keep him from throwing when he wants to.
They kept him off balance in their 7-3 loss Dec. 3, when he completed just 12 of 29 passes, 41.4 percent, the lowest of his career.
They also noticed that after Jumpy Geathers of the Washington Redskins knocked out him for a play late in the first half last Sunday, Montana didn't put up any points in the second half. By contrast, he directed three long touchdown drives in the first half.
Giants defensive lineman Erik Howard said: "You have to pressure him. You have to put some hits on him. He doesn't like to get hit. He'll throw the ball before he wants to sometimes."
When Howard was told that most quarterbacks don't like to get hit, he said, "Some less than others."
Linebacker Pepper Johnson said: "All quarterbacks are the same. I'm not saying they panic, but when you put pressure on them, they throw off their back leg, even Montana. It's easy to throw when you're just dropping back behind the perimeter and throwing the ball, and Montana's got that extra touch.
"But if you put a lot of guys in his face, he's going to have to throw the ball away, and that's what our emphasis is going to be going into this game."
All this is easier said than done, though.
Montana may be the best big-game quarterback in the game's history. He's 14-4 in the playoffs, a half-game better than the 14-5 record Terry Bradshaw compiled while leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl victories.
Montana also has won seven straight playoff games the last three seasons, and he's done it by scores of 34-9, 38-3, 20-16, 41-13, 30-3, 55-10 and 28-10.
The Redskins said they did well against Montana last week, and still lost by 18, although the last touchdown was produced by the 49ers defense.
If it's possible, Montana has become even more important to the 49ers this season, because they've virtually given up trying to prove they can run the ball.
The 49ers haven't been able to run since Roger Craig was injured in the fourth game of the season. The club wound up
18th in the league rushing the ball.
The 49ers now say they spent too much time trying to prove they could.
"We may have overreacted," said coach George Seifert.
Montana said: "We got away from some of the things that got us where we are. We always have been a passing team that set up the run, not a team that ran to set up the pass. I think for a while there, we were being manipulated into trying to have to run the ball. . . or thinking we had to."
They no longer think they have to. They're going to stick with the pass, which puts even more emphasis on their attempt to protect Montana.
When offensive lineman Harris Barton hurt his shoulder late in the first half against the Redskins and was replaced by Ricky Siglar, Geathers beat him on the first play and drilled Montana.
"We heard about it at halftime," said Barton, who came back to play with his ailing shoulder.
"It's a tough situation, because [Montana] is such a good player and is recognized as being the best there is," Barton said. "Every week, we go out there, there's a sign hanging out saying, 'Kill Montana' or 'Mutilate the Guy.' We see so many different types of blitzes and so many different types of schemes to try and get to him quick. But the most important thing is protecting the quarterbacks."
Offensive tackle Bubba Paris said: "He's not one of your most massive [6 feet 2, 195 pounds] or most underpaid [he's making $4 million this year] quarterbacks. He's about the size of my youngest son. You feel a sense of urgency to get the job done."
If the Giants can control Montana, they think they have a chance for an upset, even with Jeff Hostetler replacing injured Phil Simms at quarterback. After all, Mark Rypien piled up 441 total yards against the 49ers for the Redskins last week.
Coach Bill Parcells said the 49ers' opening playoff victory wasn't as lopsided as the 18-point margin would indicate.
"That was a very close game," he said.
What counts, though, is that Montana still won it.