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Super Bowl history, Super Bowl XXIII: Joe Montana to John Taylor

The third in a five part series recapping each of the 49ers' five Super Bowl victories. In part three we look back at one of the best Super Bowls. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and the Niners march down to score the game-winner with little time to spare.

Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Super Bowl XXIII was one of the greatest Super Bowls of all-time. There is no other way to start this recap than with those 11 or 12 words. I still don't know what to call the hyphenated ones. For the younger crowd, accustomed to the close battles we've watched over recent years, it may be hard to imagine, but Super Bowls weren't always that good. SB XXIII was smack dab in the middle of a run of 13 consecutive NFC victories and only two of those games were decided by less than 10 points. I hate the Patriots. They're cheaters. But at least they play close Super Bowls.

Super Bowl XXIIId will go down in history as one of Joe Montana's defining moments. His game-winning drive, tallying the winning points with under a minute to play, are the stuff of legends, and, in the era of horrible Super Bowls, was the only championship-winning drive I'd see until adulthood. It's how I knew our team was the best, our quarterback the best, and despite what Randy Moss might have to say about, our receiver the GOAT.

The game was played in Miami, the city later immortalized in the song 'Miami' by Will Smith. The 49ers had won two Super Bowls in the early eighties, but their claim to 'Team of the Decade' needed to add some bulk to it. In fact, the term hadn't really been thrown around. Once we applied it to our dynasty, the Raiders deemed themselves the 'Team of the Decades', which is comical because the 90's and 00's are decades, too.

Making it to the Super Bowl was no certainty for the 49ers. They went 10-6 on the year, claiming the second seed, in an era when 5 teams from each conference made the playoffs. They would become the 'worst' Super Bowl champion of all-time, the first team with 6 losses to claim the Lombardi Trophy. The 49ers had been in a playoff funk, losing in the first round of the last three playoffs. Their biggest stars were the culprits, with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig all standing out for their lackluster play. Something clicked in 1988, though.

Jerry Rice went from star to legend in the playoffs. His rookie year he set a record for dropped passes, a fact not everyone cares to remember. In '87 he set a record with 22 touchdown passes in only 12 games (due to an NFL labor dispute). During the '88 season, with the team going back and forth at quarterback between Joe Montana and Steve Young, Rice caught only 9 scores. The team had to win 4 out of its last 5 in order to make the playoffs. Rice caught fire in the postseason, letting his big-game playmaking ability shine. In the divisional round, against the Vikings, he would catch 3 short touchdowns en route to a 34-9 victory. In the conference championship, he caught 5 passes for 133 yards and 2 scores en route to a 28-3 demolishing of the Bears. He would save his best for the big show.

That year, the Bengals steamrolled their foes. Their offense, behind Boomer Esiason, was the best in the league. Esiason was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player with 28 TDs and 14 INTs (can you imagine those numbers in today's game?). They had 6 Pro-Bowlers on offense, including rookie fullback Ickey Woods. Woods scored 15 times for Cincinnati, each one punctuated by the 'Ickey Shuffle,' a dance in which he would basically hop back and forth on one foot. It was no electric slide, but may be the most well-known touchdown celebration dance of the time. They don't dance like they used to. This Bengals team is considered among the greatest teams to not win a ring, as seen on the NFL Films documentary series 'The Missing Rings.'

The game started off on a sour note (a theme for the 49ers if you've read the first two posts in the series). Tackle Steve Wallace broke his ankle on the third play of the game. The injury was reciprocated in kind by the Bengals, with All-Pro defensive lineman Tim Krumrie going down with multiple broken bones in his leg. The teams punted back and forth on their first possessions before the 49ers finally found a groove. After taking over on their own 3-yard line, they marched the ball into Bengals' territory. Dropped passes, one of them on the first play ever to be overturned by instant replay in a Super Bowl, forced them to settle for a field goal by Mike Cofer.

On their next drive, the 49ers would again be able to move the ball. Jerry Rice made key catches to move the team into the red zone. One famous play has him tipping the ball to himself in route to making a one-handed catch. The Niners would move the ball all the way to the 2-yard line, with Bengals safety David Fulcher making a touchdown saving tackle on Tom Rathman on third down. Cofer, lined up for a field goal, a 19-yarder, but inexplicably missed it wide left. It's the shortest missed field goal in Super Bowl history, and only one yard away from being the shortest possible. David Akers, anyone?

Defense dominated the first half, and the game in general. The 49ers fumbled twice on their next drive, the second one, by Roger Craig, being recovered by the Bengals. On the day, San Francisco would fumble 4 times, but only Craig's miscue would result in a turnover. Both teams went 4/13 on third down. Ronnie Lott repeatedly hit the Bengals and hit them hard. He hit rookie Woods and sent him backwards on multiple occasions. Woods managed 79 yards rushing on 20 carries, but none of them were easy. The Bengals would manage a field goal with a minute left in the first half, leaving the game tied at the half for the first time in its history at a measly 3-3. Only SB IX had a lower halftime score at 2-0.

What the first half lacked in excitement, the second half would more than make up for. Opening the third quarter, the Bengals were able to move the ball more readily than before. Chris Collinsworth caught a 23-yard reception to go with another 11-yarder to move the Bengals into field goal range. It would be Collinsworth's last game. Kicker Jim Breech would notch his second of three field goals on the game to give the Bengals their first lead of the game.

After forcing the Niners to punt, Esiason had his first down pass picked off by Bill Romanowski, now more famous in San Francisco for spitting in the eye of receiver JJ Stokes during the '97 season as a member of the Denver Broncos. Romanowski made a brilliant play, dropping back into a passing lane at the last second, tipping the ball up into the air before cradling into his arms for the pick. The 49ers, were unable to move the chains and settled for their second field goal of the game.

Just when the game appeared like it would never pick up, return man Stanford Jennings took the kickoff back 93 yards for a score. There was clearly some sort of broken coverage by the kick coverage. Jennings took the ball at his 7-yard line and sprinted straight ahead. Nobody touched him until backup receiver Terry Greer nicked his ankles with his outstretched hands in a failed attempt to thwart the return from reaching the promised land. It would be the Bengals only touchdown of the game. Bengals 13, 49ers 6.

The 49ers responded quickly. It took Joe Montana and Co. all of four plays to tie the score again. Two pass plays moved the ball to the red zone. On 1st-and-ten from the 15-yard line, Montana found Rice on an out. Rice evaded the trailing defender, tiptoed the sideline and ran it up the left side for a 33-yard gain. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Montana found Craig, in motion on the play, down the right side with a lofted ball over the extended arms of linebacker Joe Kelly, for a 40-yard gain.

The next play is one of those ones that must haunt the Bengals. It would show up in the stat sheet as a deflected pass. Montana, looking for John Taylor in the end zone threw the ball directly into the mitts of safety Lewis Billups. He fumbled it to the ground and the Niners had a second lease on the drive. Rice beat Billups on the next play. Lined up in the slot, Rice started up before sprinting diagonally toward the left pylon. Billups was a step behind and Montana floated a perfect pass to Rice's fingertips. Rice was nudged toward the sideline shortly after corralling the ball, but was able to extend the ball across the goal line before going out. Score tied, 13-13.

Cofer's kickoff went out of bounds, one of many miscues for the kicker on a forgettable night for him. The Bengals did not take advantage of the positioning, promptly returning the ball to the 49ers. San Francisco would get the ball across midfield, but Cofer would miss another field goal. Had the 49ers not come back to win the game, Cofer would have gone down as one of the biggest goats in Super Bowl history.

The Bengals offense then had their best drive of the game. A 10-play, 46-yard drive, ran the clock down while putting the critical three points on the board. Ira Hillary converted with a key reception on third-and-13. Ickey Woods had some of his best runs of the game and the Bengals set up Mike Breech with a 40-yard attempt. The veteran kicker barely got enough of the ball to send it through the uprights with 3:20 left in the game, giving Cincinnati a 16-13 lead. The ensuing kickoff was returned to the 15-yard line but an illegal blocking penalty put the ball at the 8.

Enter legend.

Joe Montana is to have told his teammates in the first huddle of the drive, "Hey, is that John Candy?" They all looked into the stands, and, with their minds taken off the gravity of the moment, settled into their task. Eschewing conventional wisdom of throwing to the sideline to stop the clock, Montana repeatedly found players across the middle. Passes to tight end John Frank, Roger Craig and Rice, along with a few runs, moved the ball to the Bengals 35-yard line. An illegal man downfield penalty against Randy Cross gave the 49ers a second-and-20. Montana found Rice for a 27-yard completion on a crossing pattern, which was one tackle away from going for the score. Rice broke three tackles before being downed by cornerback Rickey Dixon. Another 8-yard pass to Craig set the stage for what would be the second greatest play in 49ers' history (the Catch being tops, of course).

On second-and-2 from the 10-yard line, with the whole stadium, the whole world actually, expecting Montana to look for Rice, the signal caller found John Taylor in the back of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass with 39 seconds left on the clock. The play, the drive, the entire game was the pinnacle of the 49ers' dynasty and perfectly encapsulated the Joe Montana mystique. The Bengals last gasp effort died with a Boomer Esiason pass down the left sideline.

Jerry Rice was named the game's MVP. He finished with 11 catches for 215 yards (still the Super Bowl record) and a score. Joe Montana, who in any other year would have been a hands down MVP, threw for 357 yards and a pair of scores, as well as orchestrating the game-winning drive. Roger Craig had 71 yards rushing and 101 yards receiving. For the Bengals, Esiason's final stats tell the tale. He was 11 of 25 for 144 yards, zero scores and an interception. Leading receiver Collinsworth had 40 yards. The 49ers' defense once again denied the Bengals a title. The game would be the final game in the NFL coaching career of legendary Bill Walsh, the man behind the dynasty. Longtime assistant George Siefert would take over the team the following season, but as we'll see, a drop off was not on the cards. (Watch the highlights here)

Next up - Part 4: Super Bowl XXIV - 49ers 55, Broncos 10

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