SAN FRANCISCO -- In a game that amounted to little more than a tuneup bout in the playoffs for the San Francisco 49ers, linebacker Ken Norton delivered the knockout blow against the Minnesota Vikings yesterday.
The son of the former heavyweight champion, Norton intercepted an ill-advised pass by Randall Cunningham in the second quarter and ran the ball back 23 yards for a touchdown that gave the 49ers a 14-point lead en route to a 38-22 victory over the Vikings in an NFC divisional playoff game.
Norton then delivered a flurry of punches at the padding surrounding the base of one of the goal posts, symbolically ending the day for a Vikings team that was overmatched against the 49ers.
The 49ers showed a balanced attack as Terry Kirby, playing for the injured Garrison Hearst, ran 25 times for 120 yards and quarterback Steve Young was efficient, completing 21 of 30 for 224 yards.
The victory put the 49ers in the NFC title game next Sunday for the 10th time since they started their playoff run in 1981. They'll be the host for the game for the seventh time in that run.
Assuming the Green Bay Packers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today, the 49ers will play the Packers in the game that will probably determine the 1997 NFL champion, because ** the NFC title-game winner has won the past 13 Super Bowls.
"We're one game away from what our goal is. It's important for us to understand that if the defense plays well, we'll go all the way," Norton said.
The Packers knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs the previous two seasons -- a pair of losses that probably cost former San Francisco coach George Seifert his job -- and new coach Steve Mariucci knows how good Green Bay is because he was a Packers assistant for four years.
"We would look forward to playing Tampa, but Green Bay is Green Bay," said Mariucci.
Norton said: "Tampa took Jerry Rice away from us, so either way, we have something to prove."
But a Green Bay-San Francisco game would be the better attraction.
Let the hype begin.
A Packers-49ers game would be an intriguing duel between an old gunslinger (Steve Young) and a young one (Brett Favre). Young is 7-4 in playoff games and Favre is 7-3, although Young was hobbled by cracked ribs in last year's playoff loss to the Packers and was forced out after nine plays.
The Vikings came into yesterday's game as two-touchdown underdogs with the 29th-ranked defense in the game, and it lived down to its expectations.
"We didn't look past this game. We really didn't," Mariucci said.
But it wasn't a flawless performance as the 49ers gave up pass plays of 66, 63 and 31 yards, while their longest play was 29.
"I want bigger plays," Young said.
But San Francisco was good enough to dominate a Vikings team that lost its starting quarterback on Dec. 1 when Brad Johnson was injured in the midst of a five-game losing streak. The Vikings finished 1-5 and made the playoffs only because the league expanded the playoff format from eight to 12 teams in 1990.
The 49ers beat Minnesota, 28-17, on Dec. 7 and had little trouble doing it again.
Vikings offensive tackle Todd Steussie said: "There's nothing sweet about coming back here and getting your butt whipped."
And rookie linebacker Dwayne Rudd: "You've got to play a perfect game in the playoffs. You can't have breakdowns like we did today against a team like that. We expected to be more competitive today."
The Vikings advanced to this game with a miracle comeback against the New York Giants last week, but backup quarterback Cunningham wasn't up to it two weeks in a row, though he passed for 331 yards and three scores.
The 49ers rattled him with a big pass rush that set the stage for Cunningham's bad throw that Norton intercepted.
The Vikings were facing a second-and-8 situation at their 22 less than a minute after Kirby's one-yard touchdown run had given the 49ers a 14-7 lead. That score was set up by three Vikings penalties.
A pass-interference penalty on Torian Gray gave the 49ers 28 yards, and two more yards were tackled on when Rudd kicked the flag. That put the ball on the Vikings' 2. On the first play, Dixon Edwards was called for holding to move the ball a yard closer, and Kirby then ran it in.
Minnesota needed to answer with a drive of its own. Instead, Cunningham, facing a blitz by Tim McDonald, threw the ball right into Norton's arms.
Norton said: "I had the tight end covered so well that I really didn't think he was going to throw it in there."
Leading by 14 at halftime, the 49ers were aware the Vikings had overcome a 16-point halftime deficit against the Giants last week.
Linebacker Gary Plummer said: "We talked about that at halftime. We couldn't get complacent."
After the 49ers stretched the lead to 24-7 on Gary Anderson's 34-yard field goal in the third period, the Vikings narrowed the deficit to 24-14 when a 53-yard pass to Jake Reed set up a touchdown pass to Cris Carter.
The replay showed the officials blew the call on the catch because Reed's second toe came down on the end line, but it didn't make much difference because the 49ers came back with a 75-yard touchdown drive to make it 31-14.
After the teams traded touchdowns, the Vikings, trailing 38-22, had one last shot when they got to the 49ers' 16 with just over two minutes left. But Cunningham spiked the ball on first down and then threw three straight incompletions to wrap it up.
The 49ers won't find out how good they really are until next week because the victory was only the third against a team with a winning record all season.
"We heard a lot all year about how we haven't played anybody and our schedule is soft and this and that. But we just play our schedule," Norton said.
Norton knows the team will be judged by how far it goes.
"In '94, we went all the way. We haven't gone all the way yet," he said.
They're still two wins shy of that goal.
The 49ers will play in the NFC championship game next Sunday for the 12th time overall and the seventh time in the past 10 years. San Francisco's record in the game is 5-6:
Season Opponent ...... Result
1970 Dallas .......... L, 17-10
1971 at Dallas ....... L, 14-3
1981 Dallas .......... W, 28-27
1983 at Washington ... L, 24-21
1984 Chicago ......... W, 23-0
1988 at Chicago ...... W, 28-3
1989 L.A. Rams ....... W, 30-3
1990 N.Y. Giants ..... L, 15-13
1992 Dallas .......... L, 30-20
1993 at Dallas ....... L, 38-21
1994 Dallas .......... W, 38-28
Pub Date: 1/04/98