SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco 49ers, who bought the best defense money can buy in the off-season, reaped a big dividend on their investment yesterday.
After being shredded for 94 points while losing three games to the Dallas Cowboys the past two years, the 49ers' rebuilt defense held the Cowboys to one touchdown for more than 58 minutes while recording a 21-14 victory before a record 49ers crowd of 69,014 at Candlestick Park.
With the victory, the 49ers tied the Cowboys for the best record in pro football at 8-2 and gained the tiebreaker edge in the battle for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Quarterback Steve Young, who has spent his career living in the shadow of Joe Montana, fooled the Cowboys defense with naked bootleg runs while rushing for 60 yards and passed for two touchdowns. His counterpart, Troy Aikman, threw three interceptions against a 49ers defense that also kept Emmitt Smith in check.
Linebackers Gary Plummer and former Cowboy Ken Norton Jr. knew what was at stake going into the game.
"Ken Norton and I talked about it before the game," said Plummer, a fellow free agent. "I'm sure there would have been a lot of finger-pointing [if the 49ers had lost] and we knew exactly where the fingers would be pointed -- in our direction. It was just a little added motivation. This game meant so much to our organization. During the off-season, they did everything they could to be able to beat Dallas."
The players even gave the game ball to owner Eddie DeBartolo, who shrewdlyworked the salary cap to allow the 49ers to bring in such players as Plummer, Norton, Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson and Richard Dent.
"People were still questioning whether we could play great defense against a great team," Plummer said. "We played [well] against Tampa Bay and Detroit and Washington and everybody said, 'So what?' After today's performance, I don't think they're going to be able to say, 'So what?' ".
Merton Hanks, who was able to move back to free safety when the 49ers signed Sanders, intercepted two of Aikman's passes and appeared to have a third one, although the officials disallowed it.
Hanks also made the tackle that ended an 11-yard run by Smith in the third quarter when he appeared ready to break loose on a long run.
Hanks, a native of Dallas, said, "I think we have the best secondary in the league."
The 49ers also held Smith to 78 yards, his lowest total in the past four games against San Francisco. Only 26 of his yards came in the second half, when San Francisco switched to an eight-man front.
Despite bruising his thumb on a teammate's helmet in practice Friday, Aikman passed for 339 yards, including a 90-yarder to Alvin Harper in the first quarter that set up Dallas' opening touchdown.
Although Aikman said the injury wasn't a factor on any of the three interceptions he threw, he said it did affect the accuracy of some of his throws.
But Aikman added: "It would be wrong to suggest it had a major impact."
Sanders, who dislocated the middle finger on his left hand intercepting a pass in the first quarter and went into the locker room twice during the game for treatment, didn't want to concede Aikman's injury had any impact.
"I don't want to hear that," said Sanders, who only missed one series, the one in which Harper made his 90-yard gain. "Things like that, I always think, are hoaxes. We won. No excuses."
Aikman twice was picked off on passes inside the San Francisco 20.
The first time was on a third-and-six play at the San Francisco 16 in the second period when Hanks intercepted a tipped pass intended for Harper.
Coach Barry Switzer said the Cowboys were "robbed" on that one and on the Sanders interception because both were tipped.
"There was one legitimate [interception]," Switzer said.
That was the one that broke the Cowboys' backs.
Trailing 14-7, the Cowboys had a second-and-goal at the 49ers' 7 with six minutes left in the game.
Aikman threw to tight end Jay Novacek in the end zone, but didn't see Hanks, who was assigned to Smith, but was able to drift to the middle because Smith stayed in to block.
"I didn't see him coming," Aikman said.
Young then directed an 11-play, 87-yard drive and climaxed it with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Brent Jones to give the 49ers a two-touchdown cushion.
Switzer said: "I was disappointed we didn't give them our best shot. I didn't feel we played nearly as well as we can play."
Although Young didn't get much help from the defense when the Cowboys beat the 49ers 30-20 and 38-21 in the NFC title games the past two years and 26-17 in a regular-season game last season, he was the player who got the rap for not being able to win the big one.
"I try to avoid that deep psychology stuff. It wears you out," Young said.
Young completed only three of seven passes for 16 yards -- 1 net yard because he was sacked twice for 15 yards in losses -- in the firsthalf because of the fierce Dallas pass rush.
But the 49ers slowed down the rush with Young's bootleg runs during a 74-yard second-period drive that tied the game 7-7.
He then unloaded a 57-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice in the third quarter that put the 49ers ahead to stay, 14-7.
"This is as sweet as it gets," said offensive lineman Steve Wallace.
Added Hanks, the defensive hero: "Steve Young has taken so much heat for our last three losses when it was really the fault of the defense. That's why today was so big."
But Young wanted to keep it in perspective.
"This game means nothing more than we are now contenders," Young said.
L The road to the Super Bowl may now go through San Francisco.