This was not what the San Francisco 49ers wanted. They wanted to open up, give Minnesota everything they had.
Hold back? That's not what won 10 straight games. That's not what made them one of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history and this year's Super Bowl favorite.That's not what makes them the 49ers.
But hold back was what they had to do in 1994's final regular-season game Monday night. It cost them in a 21-14 defeat that allowed the Vikings to clinch their second NFC Central title in three years.
Coach George Seifert pulled most of his regulars early to avoid costly injuries, and the 49ers reserves were no match for Minnesota's defense.
"We like to run, we're like thoroughbreds, and when George pulls the reins in, guys are ticked," said Steve Young, who left in the second quarter, but still set two NFL records. "Guys don't want to be held back, but we understand. We'll get mad and take it out on the next opponent."
San Francisco (13-3) will have to wait nearly two weeks for that, when either Chicago, Detroit or Green Bay will travel to Candlestick Park. That's where the NFC championship must be won, and the 49ers are the team to beat despite Monday's setback.
The Vikings (10-6) will be back to work immediately, preparing to play host to the Chicago Bears on Sunday. Minnesota swept Chicago this season, including a 33-27 overtime win at the Metrodome on Dec. 1.
It didn't matter to the Vikings that they beat San Francisco's backups. Minnesota thumped the 49ers' offense before the stars exited, sacking Young twice and turning the first of Ricky Watters' two fumbles into a 7-0 lead on rookie cornerback Dewayne Washington's 17-yard return.
"They didn't have a whole lot to gain, but this was an important game for us," Minnesota tight end Steve Jordan aid. "Some people may look at it like San Francisco didn't put out their best effort. But the bottom line is the Vikings put themselves in a position to win the division, and we went out and did that."
They did it without Pro Bowl quarterback Warren Moon, who sat out for the first time this season after injuring his knee 10 days ago at Detroit. Moon may have been able to go if a playoff berth had been at stake, and he is likely to be ready for the Bears.
Sean Salisbury played his first game of the season in Moon's absence, overcoming a shaky start with a strong second half.
Salisbury finished 16-for-34 for 156 yards and an interception, and his 38-yard pass to Qadry Ismail set up Terry Allen's 1-yard run for a 21-7 lead in the third quarter.
"I missed some throws I'd like to have back," Salisbury said. "I was so anxious to play, I was speeding up my reads. By the time the third quarter came I was settled."
Mostly, the Vikings won with an outstanding game from their much-maligned defense.
Washington tied a rookie record with his third defensive TD of the season, and John Randle terrorized Young and Grbac with two of the Vikings' three sacks. He forced a fumble by Grbac that led to Fuad Reveiz's field goal, and he also recovered Watters' second fumble.
"It seemed like every time I threw the ball and was down on the ground, Randle was there staring me in the face," Grbac said.
Young surpassed Joe Montana's NFL-record passing rating of 112.4, set in 1989, with a 112.8. Young also eclipsed Ken Anderson's record for completion percentage, set in the 1982 season at 70.55, with a 70.7.
Young completed 12 of 13 passes before leaving early in the second quarter, along with Jerry Rice. Young completed 325 of 460 passes this season, and his 35 TD passes broke Montana's team record of 31.
Young's TD total included a 6-yard pass to Rice on the second play of the second quarter to tie the game 7-7. That gave him the highest rating for a season.
Then Seifert gave his two biggest stars the night off. It was hard for the coach to wait that long, especially after Young came up limping after a hard hit from Minnesota linebacker Carlos Jenkins.
"I think it was the longest quarter of my coaching experience," Seifert said. "Especially a couple of times, the way (Young) was taking shots. There were a few occasions where my ears were burning because I could tell what everybody was saying at the time about taking Steve out. He deserved the opportunity, but it was a long quarter, believe me."
Now that the 49ers will be playing with a vengeance, January could be a long month for the rest of the NFL.