SAN FRANCISCO — Joe Montana, maybe the greatest quarterback ever, stood on the sideline, clean as a marine during inspection. All around, players were drenched in mud, swallowing it, spitting it, their numbers smeared and camouflaged by it. Montana, still neatly pressed, crossed his arms and shuffled his feet, his famous No. 16 as bright as a lighthouse beacon. This was his time of day, late afternoon. This was his time of game, fourth quarter. But this was not his time. Not his. Not the 49ers’. Not anymore.

Instead, Montana, a backup quarterback now, watched as a Dallas passer with

surfer-boy looks dropped back in the bog, found a receiver slanting across the middle, a receiver wearing No. 80 — over the middle? No. 80? In Candlestick Park? — and that receiver slipped a tackle and raced 70 yards, hoofing to within spitting distance of the goal line. Montana exhaled. He turned away.

And the foreign No. 80, Alvin Harper, wide receiver, who was still in college the last time Montana entered a playoff game, stood up and waved defiantly to the 49ers’ crowd.

There’s a new sheriff in town.

Destiny Does Dallas.

“All the time I was running that play I was thinking this is it, this is it,” Harper said after the catch that iced the NFC championship and led to the Cowboys’ 30-20 victory over the 49ers, their first NFC title since January 1979. “I was running out of gas, that end zone kept looking farther and farther and farther, but I kept saying, ‘This is it, we’re in the Super Bowl. We’re in the Super Bowl.’ “

They’re in the Super Bowl. Dust off those boots. Free the horse from the barn. Here they come, back in the saddle, stars on their helmets, big old hats on those big old heads on those big old necks in that big old state. Football has come full circle. The era of Redskins and Giants and, yes, now the 49ers is returned to the shelf. Joe Montana, who began his legend with a pass to Dwight Clark to beat Dallas back in 1981 — is trade bait.

And the Cowboys franchise, which has always acted as if it belonged in the Super Bowl — even when it was as far from it as you can get — is back at the saloon door, kicking it open.

There’s a new sheriff in town.

Destiny Does Dallas.

“Super Bowl, y’all, y’all, Super Bowl, y’all!” sang safety James Washington, part of the best defense in the NFL, in the joyous locker room. His teammates threw towels. They acted as if they belonged, as if they were expecting this. And if you doubt the Cowboys’ credentials — or their chances to beat two-time-loser-and-back-for-more Buffalo — take a look at what they did Sunday to the 49ers, a team many considered the best in football:

Out-rushed them, out-passed them. Made fewer mistakes. Held the ball longer. Forced two interceptions, one fumble. Scored touchdowns on three drives of nearly 80 yards each.

“How ’bout them Cowboys!” gushed Jimmy Johnson, their coach. “I thought Troy Aikman did a fantastic job. I thought Emmitt Smith did a great job. Who can you say didn’t do a great job for us today?”

Hmm. Maybe the weatherman? Other than that, Dallas was a tightly wrapped ball of power. The Cowboys won this title by staying aggressive. And you can credit Johnson and his staff for that. Here’s all you need to know: Fourth quarter. Cowboys leading, 24-13. They could have played it safe with a chip-shot field goal deep in 49ers’ territory.

Instead, they went for it on fourth down, trying to close the show right there. And Smith was stuffed for no gain.

That might have unnerved lesser teams. Especially when the 49ers took that mistake and marched downfield, scoring a touchdown to close it to 24-20. But here is the fiber of these Cowboys: On the next play, rather than run down the clock, Aikman found Harper on that slant, he was off like a racehorse, 70 yards, and the game was over.

Nerve? Guts? Stupidity?

Championship.

Destiny Does Dallas.

“We play aggressive every week, that’s our style,” said Aikman, a first-round draft pick, who threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns.

“We respond well to pressure,” said Smith, a first-round draft pick, who had 114 yards rushing.

“Our coach knows how to win,” said defensive tackle Russell Maryland, a first-round draft pick who also played for Johnson on national championship teams at Miami. “He’s always been that way.”

Indeed, like ’em or hate ’em, you must salute the job Johnson has done molding this team in his image — and picking from the draft pile. Of course, it helps when you trade Herschel Walker for a barrel full of selections. But give Johnson his due. With no NFL experience, he took his Miami Hurricane philosophy — big plays, big players, take no prisoners — and applied it here. In four years, he has made the Super Bowl.

“We got here with excellent coaching, and excellent motivation,” crowed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. They also got here with his money. He paid for Plan B free agents. He paid to get draft picks into camp. He paid for top-flight facilities. And he paid attention to his staff, whenever they wanted to trade this guy, draft this guy, cut this guy.

Case in point: Defensive lineman Charles Haley, a malcontent with the 49ers. The Cowboys basically stole him with a draft-pick trade earlier this season. And on Sunday, here was Haley leaping to knock down a Steve Young pass on third down deep in Cowboys territory.

“It’s not personal, it’s a team thing,” Haley said after the win.

But he was smiling.

Destiny Does Dallas.

A moment here for Joe Montana. As the clock ticked down and the 49ers needed two touchdowns fast, you could almost hear his name being called in the Frisco fog. “Put Montana in. Put Montana in.” That George Seifert would not even give him a nod in that situation, that he stayed with Young, all the way to his final interception that slammed the door shut, shows you how far things have come with this team.

These are not the old days. The 49ers have now lost two NFC championships in the last three years — both ending with Montana on the sideline — and the world’s most famous quarterback is probably trade material. It seems unlikely he will stay here if he cannot play. He didn’t do all that rehab to hold a clipboard.

But those who were thinking Montana could have saved this game obviously didn’t watch closely. The 49ers’ defense gave up 30 points. Every time Dallas needed a big play, it got one. Hey. Montana can’t play every position.

No. If the better team didn’t win, the gutsier team did. And you can’t knock its pedigree. It’s back to the boots, folks. America’s Team reborn. Echoes of Staubach, and Pugh, and Too Tall Jones. Pull out the saddles. Sunday was a changing of the guard, and years from now, it might seem as inevitable as rain. Destiny Does Dallas. They have the title — and the stains
— to prove it.

“You know,” Smith said, ” I don’t have problems with mud.”

What cowboy does?

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