'Captain Comeback' leads '72 Cowboys past 49ers

  Friday, Jan. 8 8:14pm ET
Montana's magic (Murray's miss) send 49ers on their way
From ESPN SportsCenter

  This is the second in a five-part ESPN SportsCenter series on the best NFL Divisional playoff games of all-time, selected by a vote of ESPN.com users earlier this month. Follow the series on-air and on-line as ESPN brings you the best of the best.
Two years removed from "The Catch" and their first Super Bowl championship, the San Francisco 49ers found themselves in another classic playoff game -- this time in the NFC divisional playoffs against the Detroit Lions.

The game was played on the final day of 1983. And by the time New Year's Eve ushered in 1984, the 49ers once again had followed Joe Montana to a thrilling victory at Candlestick Park.

The difference this year, however, would be the supporting cast Montana relied on in the game's final minutes.

Dwight Clark's grab in 1981 had beaten the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game, but Clark was injured and never got on the field against the Lions. Montana would find another hero in the waning moments.

But, unlike two years earlier, the 49ers also had to survive a last-ditch comeback attempt by the Lions.

 Billy Sims
 Billy Sims brought Detroit back in the fourth quarter, but the Lions' comeback came up short.

The first quarter belonged to the 49ers, as rookie linebacker Riki Ellison twice picked off Gary Danielson. Ellison didn't have a interception in the regular season, but both turnovers led to short touchdown runs for the 49ers and a 14-3 lead.

With Danielson struggling, the Lions turned to No. 20 -- no, not Barry Sanders -- but rather Billy Sims. The running back out of Oklahoma scampered 56 yards to set up Eddie Murray's 54-yard field goal -- an NFL playoff record at the time.

But the Lions were kept out of the end zone in the first half and trailed 14-9 at halftime.

The 49ers opened the second half with an impressive ball-controlled drive, highlighted by a sensational 27-yard catch by tight end Russ Francis. His grab set up a field goal and San Francisco led 17-9.

The rest of the third quarter and most of the fourth belonged to Sims, who took over and propelled the Lions into the lead. With just under five minutes to play in the game, Sims' second touchdown of the fourth quarter put Detroit ahead 23-17.

It was suddenly deja vu for Montana and the 49ers' offense, which took the field with plenty of confidence.

"The mood in the huddle was ... real quiet," Montana said. "And a lot of concentration. You know, I think it helped everyone's confidence."

With just 1:30 to play and no Clark to turn to this time, Montana called a post pattern for wide receiver Freddie Solomon.

"We ran the play in practice, and from time to time, I either take it too deep or too short," Solomon said. "So when he called the, 'flanker short post,' I was concentrating on all the steps that I would have to do to try to get open."

Montana didn't miss on the game's final drive, completing six zonsecutive passes, the last to Solomon from 14 yards out for the go-ahead score. In just over three minutes, Montana drove the 49ers 70 yards and back into the lead.

But then he had to watch as the Lions moved within field-goal range for Eddie Murray.

Detroit got all the way to the San Francisco 25 with 11 seconds to play -- a 42-yard attempt. Murray, who had made three field goals in the game, also had missed one from 43 yards out. The one that counted the most was long enough -- but was wide right.

"I lined myself up right, but I was trying ... I was trying more or less to finesse the ball through rather than just kick it like I normally do," Murray said. "It's like golf. When you hook the ball, and you leave it out and it doesn't come back in. It's the same principle."

Monte Clark could be seen praying on the sidelines as Murray kicked the ball. His prayers went unanswered, and the 49ers prevailed 24-23.

"All it came down to was that one last drive at the end of the game, and that's where playoff experience, having been there before, in that situation really helps," Francis said.

It also doesn't hurt to have Montana running the show in the final act.

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