Even when he misses, Montana on target


HOUSTON -- For his next trick, Joe Montana will melt the ice in Buffalo, then walk on water to his fifth Super Bowl.

That's 29 fourth-quarter comebacks. A 16-5 postseason record. And a place in the AFC championship game, with a Kansas City team that hasn't been there since 1969.

Ask the Houston Oilers if they believe.

They took a 13-7 lead with 9:37 remaining yesterday after intercepting Montana for the second time and getting a 43-yard field goal from Al Del Greco.

The Chiefs were out of timeouts.

Montana's entire body ached.

And the Oilers had no chance.

Imagine a team with an 11-game winning streak, playing before the largest home crowd in club history, and doomed to defeat.

Montana rallied the Chiefs for three touchdowns in the final 8:38. Montana led the Chiefs to a 28-20 victory. Montana, Montana, Montana.

"It feels as good as ever, [knowing] a lot of people counted you out, said you'd never make it this far," Montana said. "It feels good to be at this point, still in one piece, still playing."

He's 37 now, under-throwing the ball more often than not, and it doesn't matter. Just ask those mouthy Oilers -- Montana in the fourth quarter is the football equivalent of death and taxes.

RF "The only thing it looks like to me is that he doesn't run like he

used to," Houston defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan said. "Well, I don't run like I used to, either."

The Oilers were 9 yards away from a 17-0 lead in the second period. They were 25 yards away from a 17-7 lead in the fourth. They talked about knocking out Montana, but it never happened.

"The guys that have a history, the guys that have shown the ability to do it, do in fact lift others to another level," Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said.

Yesterday, Montana faced relentless pressure from the Oilers' blitzing defense, but completed 22 of 38 passes for 299 yards -- 13 of 18 for 212 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.

Obviously, it helped that the Chiefs had a season-high nine sacks. But in the same stadium, against the same opponent, they absorbed a 30-0 loss without Montana earlier this season.

Yesterday, they trailed 10-0 at halftime, 10-7 entering the fourth quarter.

"We're coming after you," Oilers linebacker Lamar Lathon told Montana before sacking him early in the final period.

"Yeah, I know," Montana said.

He isn't the same quarterback who won four Super Bowls. He took painkilling shots before the game, bone-jarring shots from the Oilers during it. "He was hurting today," tight end Keith Cash said.

And then came the fourth quarter.

"He kept getting hit. They were sending everyone, but eventually Joe was able to pick them apart," wide receiver J. J. Birden said. "He never lost his composure."

Such is Montana's mystique, he now works his magic without his legendary touch, without Jerry Rice and John Taylor as his wide receivers.

On one series in the second quarter, Willie Davis dropped a sure touchdown pass, Cris Dishman knocked away another and a 38-yard completion to the Houston 4 was nullified because of a penalty.

As usual, Montana didn't flinch.

"Even if we drop a pass at a critical time like a third-and-six," Davis said, "the only thing he says is, 'Let's go on to the next play and we'll be all right.' "

Indeed, Montana's three biggest throws in the fourth quarter weren't perfect. Yet it seemed as if he almost willed them to the right spots.

Trailing 13-7, Montana under-threw a long pass to Davis. Naturally, Dishman was called for a 38-yard interference penalty. Naturally, Montana threw an 11-yard touchdown to Birden on the next play.

Leading 14-13, Montana lofted a third-and-16 pass toward the corner of the end zone. It was deliberately under-thrown. Davis got behind Dishman, then sneaked back for an 18-yard touchdown catch.

Finally, leading 21-20, Montana faced a critical third-and-one from his own 30 with three minutes left. He got hit. His pass fluttered. But somehow it got to Cash, who turned upfield for a 41-yard gain that set up the Chiefs' final touchdown.

"I've never been a guy who threw a tight spiral," Montana joked. "Everyone who plays with me says I throw a tight wobble, not a tight spiral."

Whatever you say, Joe.

Now about that ice in Buffalo . . .

Joe Montana returned from a three-week layoff to throw two touchdown passes in the Chiefs' victory at home.

The Bills came into the game averaging 134 yards rushing, but were limited to 43 yards on the ground. Buffalo was shut out after a first-quarter drive resulted in a nine-yard touchdown run by Kenneth Davis.

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