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50 Most Memorable Super Bowl Moments, No. 3: Joe Montana denies Bengals again

As the NFL approaches its highly anticipated golden anniversary Super Bowl, Yahoo Sports takes a look back at some of the most memorable moments in the game’s history.

In our rankings, the moments go beyond the great scores and plays. We also take a look at entertainment performances, scandals/controversies and other events associated with corresponding Super Bowls.

Cris Collinsworth has expertly evaluated hundreds of players in his time as one of football’s best analysts, but he’s rarely ever been more on point than he was after experiencing a crushing loss in Super Bowl XXIII as a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Joe Montana is not human,” Collinsworth said to reporters shortly after the San Francisco 49erstriumphed over his team 20-16. “I don’t want to call him a god, but he’s definitely somewhere in between.”

Collinsworth continued.

“I have never seen a guy that every single time he’s had the chips down and people are counting him out, he’s come back,” Collinsworth said. “He’s maybe the greatest player who’s ever played the game.”

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Whether or not Montana is history’s greatest quarterback is open for healthy debate.

Whether Montana was the best quarterback in Super Bowls may not be. Montana was listed at the quarterback spot when the NFL announced its “Super Bowl 50 Golden Team” last week, thanks in large part to the legendary drive he conducted in Miami to win the 49ers their third of four Super Bowl titles in the 1980s.

As the story goes, Collinsworth had overheard a teammate presuming an advantage after a field goal put the Bengals on the brink of their first Super Bowl title. But after also losing to Montana and the 49ers as a rookie in Super Bowl XVI, Collinsworth knew better.

“Have you taken a look at who’s quarterbacking the 49ers?,” Collinsworth shot back.

Indeed, anyone who saw Montana slowly jogging onto the field with three minutes, 10 seconds remaining, three timeouts and the greatest wide receiver in the history of football on his side knew that 92 yards wouldn’t prove to be an unconquerable challenge.

Heck, John Candy would’ve stood a better chance at blending in on the sidelines than the Bengals defense had of stopping Montana in that situation. Yet even that didn’t happen as Montana spotted the comedian and pointed him out to offensive tackle Harris Barton, thereby writing the opening for every Super Bowl XXIII recap for the next 100 years (save for this one).

That Montana was calm enough to note Candy’s presence before tackling a late drive to win the Super Bowl will forever be held up as proof of the quarterback’s unflappable nature.

But even had Candy stayed back at the hotel that day, few people in the future would have needed the anecdote to understand the brilliance of Montana in his element. The 49ers quarterback dissected the Bengals defense over 11 plays that seemed so familiar that NFL Films caught Bengals coach Sam Wyche claiming deja vu on the sidelines. (Montana had led a last-minute drive against Cincinnati a season earlier.)

Eventual Super Bowl MVP Jerry Rice proved to be Montana’s main target on the final drive, catching three passes for 51 yards. Rice’s final reception was a thrilling 27-yard grab made over the middle on second-and-20 with just one minute, 17 seconds remaining. It left Rice with a Super Bowl-record 215 yards on 11 receptions, but Montana still had 18 more yards to pick up the total of 357 passing yards he’d finish with.

After finding Roger Craig for eight yards on first down, the 49ers lined up from the Bengals’ 10-yard line. The play came in. It was “20 Halfback Curl X Up” with Craig, the running back, designated as the primary receiver.

As the 49ers broke the huddle, Craig and fullback Tom Rathman lined up in the wrong spots in the split-back formation behind Montana. It didn’t faze Montana in the slightest. Rice went into motion as a decoy. The ball was snapped. Craig ran his route underneath as he had successfully done all drive. Meanwhile, John Taylor, who hadn’t caught a pass all game, ran off pattern. He split the safeties for just a moment, but it was all Montana needed. He threaded a pass inside to Taylor’s hands as the receiver sliced across the goal line just ahead of Bengals safety Ray Horton for the winning touchdown.

Like he had with Notre Dame in the 1979 Cotton Bowl or the 49ers in the 1981 NFC championship, Montana had authored yet another high-profile comeback.

“Thirty-four seconds away from it,” a crestfallen Wyche muttered on the sidelines.

49ers coach Bill Walsh called the drive a “lifetime experience” after the game. He’d retire from the 49ers four days later.

While there have been several thrilling finishes in Super Bowls in the years since, Montana’s really stood out at the time since no one had ever staged a game-winning touchdown drive that late in the contest. The next-day headlines crowned XXIII as the best Super Bowl ever played.

“The Super Bowl was finally Super,” 49ers center Randy Cross famously said.

All thanks to a quarterback who wasn’t human, wasn’t a god, but somewhere in between.

For football fans, that was a great place for Joe Montana to be.



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