Not since the the National and old American Football Leagues merged in 1970 have two teams stepped simultaneously into their first Super Bowl. But Cincinnati and San Francisco will do just that after nailing down conference titles in strikingly dissimilar games.
The American Conference championship turned out to be a test of arctic survival, won by the host Bengals against the all-but-frozen San Diego Chargers, 27-7. By contrast, the National Conference championship was a real game, a battle to the end on a gloriously sunny day sans numb fingers and paralyzing cold. The 49ers triumphed 28-27, but only after driving nearly the length of the field to score the decisive touchdown with 51 seconds left and then recovering a fumble to halt Dallas's last-gasp counterattack.
The victories marked the first time either team had won a conference crown, San Francisco in its 32-year NFL history or Cincinnati in its 14-year existence. Now both have two weeks to prepare, repair, and face the media onslaught before taking the field Jan. 24 in Super Bowl XVI. Though the first northern Super Bowl, ''sweet sixteen'' will unfold in the climate-controlled environs of the Silverdome in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac.
The Bengals and 49ers may have come very far, very fast, yet every fragment of evidence indicates they are the best of this topsy-turvy season. They proved that in the regular season, when Cincinnati led the AFC with a 12-4 record, San Francisco the NFC with a 13-3 mark. They proceeded to knock off Buffalo and the New York Giants in their respective playoff openers and followed up by beating experienced playoff opponents Sunday.
Some Cowboys still claimed superiority afterward, the shocking loss undoing reason and sadly undermining graciousness. That ''America's Team'' had lost twice in the same season to the 49ers, first in a 45-14 blowout and then in a pressure-cooker rematch, just didn't seem possible. ''We felt coming out here we had the best team in the league,'' said Cowboys quarterback Danny White.
Dallas figured it was on the verge of proving just that in this seesawing contest after taking a 27-21 lead on White's 21-yard TD pass to Doug Cosbie late in the fourth quarter. Last-minute heroics, however, are quarterback Joe Montana's trademark, and they've been so long before the 49ers drafted him out of Notre Dame three years ago.
He marched his team all the way down to the Dallas six-yard line, accompanied by Candlestick Park's frenzied crowd noise. Those last yards, of course, are always the hardest to negotiate, and it looked as if Dallas was going to make the big, game-saving defensive play. But while scrambling for his life, Montana did something 49er Coach Bill Walsh called typical of ''the most resourceful player in the National Football League.'' On the run, he lofted a pass toward receiver Dwight Clark, who sensed the desperate situation and raced across the back of the end zone.
''It looked like he had to just get rid of the ball,'' Dallas's Ed Jones said of Montana's pass.''I actually thought he was putting it up for grabs.'' The ball never really came down. Clark just leaped incredibly high to grab it over the heads of two Cowboys. The play could hardly have been defended any better.
The irony in this outcome lies herein: Montana was riding the 49er bench behind Steve DeBerg until Dallas blitzed San Francisco 59-14 last season. ''We were having offensive line problems and we needed someone with Montana's mobility,'' said QB coach Sam Wyche, explaining the switch. Montana won the starting job permanently, DeBerg was traded, and now Dallas wonders what it hath wrought.
While Montana proved his mettle in nearly ideal playing conditions, Bengal qaurterback Ken Anderson won accolades for his passing in the deep freeze that was Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. Actually, one could only assume the Ohio still coursed nearby, since rising clouds of condensation made it look like a gigantic Turkish steam bath.
Temperature at game time was -9 degrees, with the wind chill factor at -54. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle gave some thought to postponing this second-coldest playoff game in league history, but elected to play it when an ergonomics expert deemed the conditions safe.
That was hardly comforting news for the Chargers, who had beaten Miami in 84 -degree Florida weather only eight days before. Neither team let on that the cold would have any effect, yet San Diego obviously felt it more than the Bengals. Charger quarterback Dan Fouts never had his usual zip on the ball and twice was intercepted at or near the goal line. Anderson, on the other hand, mastered the situation better than anyone could have imagined, completing 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns.
As a team the Bengals committed only one turnover, to the Chargers' four. The first of San Diego's miscues was particularly costly, too, coming at the Charger 12-yard line when kickoff return man James Brooks fumbled the ball. The Bengals quickly scored a TD to take what amounted to a commanding 10-0 lead.