The fourth and final game of the first round of the San Francisco 49ers Ultimate Showdown Tournament is in the books, and we have seen the tournament’s first upset.
If you can consider a Super Bowl Champion beating a team that failed to make the Super Bowl a true upset, that is. The game was a very interesting bout, pitting two teams separated by only two years against one another.
The rosters were near mirror images, and a bevy of players lined up offensively and defensively on both sidelines (remember, Family Guy time travel rules).
However, the matchup did span a pivotal crossroads in 49er history, pitting Bill Walsh in his final year in the NFL against his old defensive coordinator, and ultimate successor, George Seifert.
Unlike the battle between the Cinderella 1981 team and the behemoth 1994 power house in Game Three, the teacher would get the better of his student this time around, with the 1988 never-say-die 49ers prevailing narrowly, 24-20 in come-from-behind fashion.
Line Score – 1988 49ers 24, 1990 49ers 20
John Taylor 23 Yd TD catch from Joe Montana (Cofer kick)
Mike Cofer 37 Yd FG
Jerry Rice 14 Yd TD catch from Joe Montana (Cofer kick)
Tom Rathman 5 Yd TD rush (Cofer kick)
Brent Jones 12 Yd TD catch from Joe Montana (Cofer kick)
Jerry Rice 48 Yd TD catch from Joe Montana (Cofer kick)
Roger Craig 15 Yd TD rush (Cofer kick)
In perhaps the most interesting matchup of the first round, the action on the field resembled a late-eighties era scrimmage at 4949 Centennial Boulevard in Santa Clara.
Two extremely similar rosters, led by two different but keenly familiar head coaches squared off.
The Walsh versus Seifert series stood tied at one game a piece, as Bill Walsh’s 1984 team had confidently beaten an over-matched 1992 George Seifert team in Game One, while Game Three had seen Seifert’s 1994 juggernaut get past the young and feisty 1981 squad.
Neither coach wanted to surrender bragging rights to the other, making for an interesting game (Seifert would of course win either way, being the defensive coordinator of the 1988 team, but you cannot beat leading your own team to a win).
The 1988 team took the opening kickoff, but, to no large surprise, found strong resistance from the 1990 49ers, a team which gave up just 239 regular season points, third-fewest in the tournament. Seifert was resolute in his will to win, and had a confident squad of players, fresh off their second-consecutive Super Bowl win in 1989.
The 1990 49ers took their first possession and marched down the field, under the confident command of Joe Montana. Completions to tight end Brent Jones for 22 yards and wide receiver Jerry Rice for 14 yards highlighted the march. A third-and-9 swing pass to full back Tom Rathman gained 12 yards, extending the drive and setting the 1990 49ers up inside the opposing 30-yardline.
Two plays later, Joe Montana found WR John Taylor in the back of the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown with 10:19 remaining in the first quarter. The extra point from Mike Cofer made the score 7-0 in favor of George Seifert’s 1990 squad.
The 1988 49ers would manage to answer back on their next drive. The 1990 team may not have given up many points, but their rushing defense was particularly susceptible in big games, surrendering nearly 120 yards rushing per game in the playoffs.
Bill Walsh crafted a nice drive, combining short passes to Super Bowl XXIII MVP Jerry Rice with effective runs from running back Roger Craig. The 1990 49ers showed a bend but not break resolve, tightening up in their own territory and forcing the 1988 team to settle for a 37-yard Mike Cofer field goal, to draw within four points at 7-3.
The 1988 team threatened to take their first lead of the game late in the quarter when Joe Montana drove them down inside the opposing 25-yarldine with under two minutes remaining in the first quarter. However, a costly fumble by FB Tom Rathman led to a Bill Romanowski recovery for the 1990 team and an end to the threat. The first quarter came to an end with the 1990 49ers leading 7-3.
The 1990 49ers began to feel a surge from the 1988 offense in the second quarter. The 1988 49ers crafted another grinding, methodical drive early in the quarter, marching deep into 1990 territory. Completions to John Taylor, John Frank, and Jerry Rice blended masterfully with punishing rushes from Tom Rathman and Roger Craig.
A wily Joe Montana eluded a sure sack from defensive end Peirce Holt and escaped up the sideline for 6 yards to move the chains on third-down near the opposing 30-yardline.
The drive was capped by 14-yard touchdown reception from Joe Montana to Jerry Rice. Mike Cofer would connect on the point after to make the score 10-7 in favor the 1988 squad with 11:08 to play before the half.
After forcing a quick three-and-out, the 1988 team looked sure to extend that lead, when they again moved down field and into 1990 territory.
They looked like a lock to come away with at least a field goal, but a well-timed blitz from linebacker Charles Haley on a key third-down forced Joe Montana to double back and DE Kevin Fagan sealed his escape path, wrapping him up for a the sack and an 11-yard loss, taking the 1988 team out of field goal range.
A strong punt return from WR John Taylor brought the 1990 49ers their own 37-yardline. Joe Montana and the 1990 offense rode this momentum, driving downfield to reclaim the lead as a redzone opportunity yielded a five-yard Tom Rathman touchdown run.
The excitement was tempered when Mike Cofer missed the point after. The lead for the 1990 team stood at 13-10 with just 3:21 to play before halftime.
The ensuing drive by the 1988 49ers would not reach midfield and 1990 team took the punt and ran out the clock to lead 13-10 at halftime.
George Seifert was never one for flashy halftime speeches, but his team came with a flurry to start the second half.
Dexter Carter took a Mike Cofer kick off back to the 36-yardline, and the 1990 offense went to work. Nine plays and 52 yards later, Joe Montana hit TE Brent Jones on a delayed flat route and he eluded would-be tacklers en route to the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown.
Mike Cofer would not miss for the 1990 team, making the score 20-10. The 1990 team held the first two-score lead in the game, but it was still early, with 11:32 remaining in the third quarter.
Both defenses stood tall for much of the third quarter, as neither team could cross the opposing 45-yardline for the next nine minutes of play. The 1988 team was not ready to go down quietly, however. If they could not cross the 45-yardline, the 1988 team would have to score from beyond the 45-yardline.
After three straight rushes by Roger Craig netted a total of 14 yards for the 1988 team, bringing them just past midfield, Joe Montana executed a beautiful play action fake to Craig and hit Jerry Rice over the top, down the middle of the field.
Rice avoided a tackle from strong safety Dave Waymer and sprinted 48 yards for the score. The Mike Cofer extra point drew the 1988 49ers back within three at 20-17 as time had expired in the third quarter.
This made for high drama going into the final 15 minutes of play.
The drama would start on the ensuing kick-off. The 1988 kick-off coverage team showed some susceptibilities, most notably allowing a potentially crushing 93-yard return for touchdown to the Cincinnati Bengals’ Stanford Jennings in the third quarter of Super Bowl XXIII.
Dexter Carter would expose this susceptibility as he weaved through the kick coverage, aided by a few key blocks, and found the left sideline.
He broke free for a few moments, but corner back Eric Wright would track him down and force him out of bounds after 75 yards.
The 1990 49ers seemed certain to expand their lead, but two plays later, a fierce hit by free safety Ronnie Lott on Roger Craig jarred the ball loose, and LB Charles Haley scooped it up and returned it to the 31-yardline.
Defense held sway again for the next eight minutes, until Roger Craig eventually redeemed himself. This time, however, it was for the 1988 team.
Following a seven-play drive into the opposing redzone, Craig took a hand-off from Joe Montana and scampered 15 yards off right tackle for the go-ahead score. Mike Cofer added to the extra point to stake the 1988 team to a 24-20 lead with just 4:43 to play.
A punt by each team gave the 1990 team one last chance as they started from their own 23-yardline with 1:47 to play.
They were out of timeouts and needed a touchdown to win. Joe Montana summoned the heroics that helped him author 31 come-from-behind victories over the course of his career. A quick no-huddle offense kept the 1988 defense on its heels and eventually gained the opposing 22-yardline with 0:28 to play.
Mike Cofer’s mixed extra point in the second quarter would prove to be fatal, as it kept the 1990 team from being able to tie the game with a field goal.
An out-route to WR John Taylor failed to get out of bounds, and by the time the offense could get set and spike the ball, only 0:12 seconds remained. Two passes into the end zone failed to yield a score, and CB Tim McKyer knocked down a pass intended for Jerry Rice with no time remaining on fourth down.
It was not quite as dramatic as Super Bowl XXIII, but the 1988 49ers—the last 49er team ever to be coached by Bill Walsh—staked their beloved coach to one more come-from-behind win. They move on to the second round and the semi-final matchups are set:
(No. 2) 1989 49ers v. (No. 1) 1984 49ers
(No. 5) 1988 49ers v. (No. 3) 1994 49ers
Stay tuned for exciting second-round action, and check out additional commentary from this game on my blog soon!