American Football: Montana conjures up another late show: Veteran quarterback saves his best until last to take Kansas City Chiefs to within one step of the Super Bowl

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A FURTHER compelling chapter was added to the NFL's most marketable drama on Sunday night when the quarterback against whom all his contemporaries are judged produced another thrilling performance. In guiding the Kansas City Chiefs past the Houston Oilers, and into next weekend's AFC Championship game, the leading character in The Joe Montana Story once again demonstrated his penchant for saving his best until last.

Going into the contest the Chiefs appeared to be over-matched visiting the NFL's form team, the Oilers having won 11 in a row. In particular Buddy Ryan's swarming defense looked too strong for a Chiefs offense short of quality receivers, for all Montana's ability to locate the open man.

Such an analysis was fully borne out in a first half in which the Chiefs were kept scoreless while Al del Greco's 49-yard field goal and Gary's Brown's two-yard touchdown run established a 10-0 lead for the home side. Montana immediately served notice that the second half would be different, and a 71- yard drive on their first possession was climaxed by his 10-yard TD pass to Keith Cash. Still the Oilers held a 10-7 lead into the fourth quarter, and extended it to 13-7 on Del Greco's second field goal with just over nine minutes left.

Then Montana took over. In just 58 seconds he marched the Chiefs another 71 yards downfield, with J J Birden this time on the end of the scoring pass. Derrick Thomas, the Chiefs linebacker, then produced the play of the game, sacking Warren Moon, the Houston quarterback and forcing a fumble which the Chiefs recovered. Two plays later Montana found Willie Davis from 18 yards for his third TD pass and the Chiefs were 21-13 ahead.

It was soon cut to 21-20 as Moon completed eight straight passes, the last of which was to Ernest Givens for a 12-yard touchdown. With three and a half minutes on the clock Montana had to conjure one last drive for the Chiefs to win. And of course he did just that. A classic bit of improvisation saw him complete a 40-yard pass to Cash, which set up Marcus Allen's 21-yard TD running with 1:55 left. The Chiefs were 28-20 up and held on for the surprise victory of this year's play-offs. It was Montana's 29th fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victory.

'We felt if we just plugged at it and plugged at it we could do it,' Montana said, while Allen suggested Houston bravado going into the game had been a factor. 'They challenged our manhood. They've got a quality team but you don't need to do all that talking. The guys have enough incentive, you don't have to add to it. They really challenged us and we did what we had to do,' he said.

The win means it is still possible for Montana to face the San Francisco 49ers, with whom he won four Super Bowls, in this year's big game and the prospect will doubtless dominate the run-up to Sunday's championship games. However, both the Chiefs and 49ers must be rated underdogs. The 49ers mauled a New York Giants side that looked to have taken one hit too many in recent weeks. To win 44-3 in the play-offs will always be remarkable, but the 49ers face a much harder task when they visit Dallas. The Cowboys have won the last two encounters between the two teams.

The key may be whether a 49ers defense, which has struggled against the run all season but completely shut down Rodney Hampton, can maintain its form against Emmitt Smith. Smith reinjured his dislocated shoulder in a ragged Cowboy victory over the Green Bay Packers, but insists he will be fit for the 49ers. The suspicion is that he will be the game's decisive influence.

The Chiefs must take their passing game to the frozen wastes of New York State which was as cold as it has ever been during the Buffalo Bills 29-23 victory over the Los Angeles Raiders. The Bills struggled for much of that game but can be expected to make the most of their familiarity with the conditions to put the big chill on Montana. Then again snow might just make a suitable backdrop for another famous chapter . . .

NFL: NFC play-off: Dallas 27 Green Bay 17. AFC play- off: Kansas City Chiefs 28 Houston Oilers 20.


AFC: Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills

NFC: SF 49ers at Dallas Cowboys

(Photograph omitted)