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S.F.'s early run turns over reign of Dallas, 38-28 Vindication super for Chargers, 49ers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Real Super Bowl turned out to be just about as one-sided as most of the ones played on Super Sunday.

As so often happens in the Super Bowl, the NFC title game at Candlestick Park yesterday didn't come close to living up to the hype.

The San Francisco 49ers, who spent the off-season buying and retooling a team designed to beat the Dallas Cowboys, dominated the long-awaited third straight NFC title game between the two teams.

Turning three turnovers into touchdowns in the first 7 1/2 minutes and then adding a fourth in the final seconds of the first half, the 49ers ended Dallas' two-year Super Bowl reign by posting a 38-28 victory before 69,125 screaming fans, the largest crowd ever to see the 49ers at Candlestick Park.

After falling behind 21-0, the Cowboys -- striving to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls -- fought back and three times narrowed the deficit to 10 points.

Running back Emmitt Smith, who was favoring his tender left hamstring and then pulled his right one in the final quarter, had a tear running down his cheek as he left the field.

"It's like spotting Carl Lewis 20 yards in the 100-yard --," Smith said of the 49ers' 21-0 lead.

The 49ers are now 17 1/2 -point favorites to become the first team to win five Super Bowls when they meet the San Diego Chargers in two weeks in Miami.

By winning the undercard -- otherwise known as the AFC title game -- the Chargers qualified for the chance to become the 11th straight AFC team to lose the Super Bowl.

The 49ers beat the Chargers, 38-15, on Dec. 11 in San Diego and the oddsmakers figure they'll do it again in Super Bowl XXIX.

The 49ers, though, think the Real Super Bowl already has been played.

Flamboyant cornerback Deion Sanders, one of the free agents the 49ers brought in after losing to the Cowboys in the NFC title game the past two years, said, "I feel like honestly, this was the Super Bowl. Not taking anything away from San Francisco . . . I mean San Diego, whoever won the [AFC] game. I wasn't concerned about that. I was concerned about the Cowboys. I was brought here for this one game."

It's hard to imagine the Super Bowl being any more emotional than this game was for the 49ers -- especially for coach George Seifert and quarterback Steve Young.

They've been living in the huge shadows cast by former coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana, but it became their team yesterday.

Young took a victory lap with the ball held aloft as the fans chanted, "Steve . . . Steve . . . Steve." One fan even held up a sign reading, "Joe Who?"

Both Seifert and Young had trouble describing their emotions in overcoming the pressure they faced.

"To answer that pressure is one of the great feelings in sports," Young said as he finally led a team to the Super Bowl.

Seifert said: "It's one of the most emotional sidelines I've been involved in since I've been coaching. It's one of the most exciting experiences certainly in my life. It's just great to be part of this. To see Steve Young's emotions is something I won't forget. I've been here for four Super Bowl rings, I've got four rings, but none compares to the emotion of this."

On the Dallas side, coach Barry Switzer was upset, saying the muddy field was a "disgrace" and criticizing the officials for not calling pass interference on Sanders when he was guarding Michael Irvin on a deep pass with five minutes left and Dallas trailing by 10.

On the condition of the field, Seifert said: "It's part of getting the home-field advantage. It's something that you learn in this league, the longer that you're in this league."

That was an obvious reference to this being Switzer's first year in the league.

Sanders, naturally, disagreed that he should have been called for a penalty, though TV replays indicated otherwise.

"That was normal. Irvin should be in the NBA [for pushing off]. Everything was clean today," he said.

The ensuing unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Switzer "for showing [an official] how Deion shoved Michael" pushed the Cowboys into a third-and-25 situation at the Cowboys' 42 and Dallas gave up the ball two plays later.

Switzer admitted "it's a mistake that I gave them 15 yards. I

contributed to us getting beat -- no question. It's damn frustrating. If they make the call, we have the ball down there and I promise we'll score and it will be a 35-38 game."

L But the Cowboys couldn't blame all their problems on others.

They failed to run out the clock in the final minute of the first half, giving the 49ers the ball on the Dallas 39 with 30 seconds left.

Three plays later, with 13 seconds left, they had Larry Brown single-cover Jerry Rice, who hauled in a 28-yard touchdown pass to put the 49ers ahead 31-14 at halftime. Even Switzer conceded it wasn't smart to single-cover Rice in that situation.

The Cowboys never seemed to get in sync.

Quarterback Troy Aikman, who suffered his first playoff loss after going 7-0, said, "We came out thinking we were going to run the ball, but when you get down 21 to nothing, we were forced to put the ball up in the air."

But the Cowboys passed on five of their first six plays and two of them wound up being turnovers.

Eric Davis intercepted Aikman's third pass and ran it back 44 yards for a touchdown and stripped Aikman's fifth pass away from Irvin and Tim McDonald recovered the fumble. Five plays later, the 49ers led 14-0.

Smith, who wound up gaining 74 yards in 20 carries before being forced out with 10:28 to play, said, "I knew today I didn't want to go outside and try to out-run somebody. I tried not to use my left leg as much as my right leg. It [the new hamstring pull] may have been a case of overcompensating."

The 49ers crossed up the Cowboys by putting Sanders one-on-one on Alvin Harper, who's hurt them in the past, and letting Davis cover Irvin at the start. While Irvin caught 12 passes, Harper was held to one reception for 14 yards.

After Davis stripped Irvin of the ball on the second series, Young threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Watters, who was supposed to be the outlet receiver.

On the ensuing kickoff, Adam Walker stripped the ball out of Kevin Williams' arms and kicker Doug Brien recovered on the Dallas 35.

Seven plays later, William Floyd scored on a 1-yard run to make it 21-0 even though the game was only 7:27 old.

After the Cowboys cut it to 21-7 and got back to the 49ers' 12, they gambled on third-and-10. They tried to pop Smith on a draw instead of throwing, but Smith gained just 2 yards.

Chris Boniol then missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt.

With the help of a 33-yard questionable pass interference penalty on Brown, the 49ers came back with a 34-yard Brien field goal to boost their lead to 24-7 in the second quarter.

The Cowboys, who had a 451-294 edge in yardage and a 29-19 lead in first downs, spent the rest of the game playing catchup, but never caught the 49ers, who got to do all the celebrating.

"It feels wonderful to let everyone know that it's all right to dream. I've been believing all year," Sanders said.

BAD START

Halfway through the first quarter, the 49ers already had taken a 21-0 lead, thanks to Cowboys turnovers on consecutive possessions:

* On the third play of the Cowboys' first series, Troy Aikman was intercepted by Eric Davis, who returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. 49ers 7, Cowboys 0, 1:02.

* On the third play of the Cowboys' next series, Eric Davis forced a fumble by Michael Irvin, and the 49ers took over at the Dallas 39. Five plays later, Steve Young and Ricky Watters connected on a 29-yard touchdown pass. 49ers 14, Cowboys 0, 4:19.

* The Cowboys' Kevin Williams fumbled on the ensuing kickoff, and the 49ers recovered at the Cowboys' 35. San Francisco took seven plays to score on William Floyd's 1-yard run. 49ers 21, Cowboys 0, 7:27.

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