American Football: Montana's watching brief as the Cowboys ride on: Matt Tench reports on who will and who won't be going to the Super Bowl this year

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IT WAS a sight that will haunt San Francisco for years to come. The 49ers were embroiled in a classic contest, a place in the Super Bowl at stake, and a familiar, hunched figure was walking the sidelines with a jacket on, his helmet nowhere to be seen. The coaches and commentators will no doubt come up with 100 good reasons why Steve Young was playing instead of Joe Montana. The fans may be less understanding. As their team continued to struggle in the fourth quarter, it was a little like watching the final battle scene, only to be told that John Wayne was still in make-up.

Had the 49ers won, all would have been forgiven. Instead the Dallas Cowboys were 30-20 winners of the NFC Championship game, and meet the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII in a fortnight's time. Montana, wearing a 49er uniform for probably the last time, did not take a snap.

In fairness to Young and his head coach, George Seifert, the decision to play him was almost certainly the right one. While Montana has been injured for most of the season, the left- hander has been in devastating form, taking a stack of individual titles as he guided the 49ers to the best record in the NFL.

Montana came back for the second half of their last regular season game and played as well as could be expected after a two-year lay-off. But Young was the man in command, and in the circumstances it would have been desperately unfair to drop someone playing the best football of his life just because another good player was available. Even if they are Joe Montana. And, lest we forget, Montana has lost play-off games. It only seems that he hasn't. Two years ago the New York Giants marched into Candlestick Park at the same stage of the season and carried off the spoils. Montana, in his prime, made no difference.

Even so, there will be a lengthy inquest in the Bay area. Young gave a patchy performance in the defeat of Washington last week, and threw a couple of costly interceptions against Dallas including one on the sort of fourth-quarter drive that Montana has claimed as his own. Whatever the justice of the sentiment, many 49er fans will feel that Old Joe in that position would not have turned the ball over.

Despite the result, it still seems likely that Young will stay with the 49ers and Montana depart, with Minnesota the most likely destination. Young is five years younger and has done everything his team could expect of him. Except get them to a Super Bowl.

Nor should the 49ers' quarterbacking questions overshadow what was a superb Dallas victory. They gained and kept the ascendency in an absorbing contest. Amid a tremendous team effort there were brilliant performances from the quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith.

These two dominated the second half with Aikman completing 13 of 16 passes for 208 yards in that period, while Smith rushed for 114 yards, gained 59 more on seven pass receptions, and scored a couple of touchdowns. 'His performance in the second half was as good as any quarterback's I've ever seen,' Roger Staubach, arguably the Cowboys greatest ever quarterback, said of Aikman. 'I just stood on the sideline and marvelled at what he did.'

In a week when America is absorbed by generational change it is fitting that Jimmy Johnson's young Cowboys are off to the Super Bowl. Many expected them to dominate the sport in the 1990s, fewer thought they would start doing it just yet.

The Cowboys will be heavily favoured to beat Buffalo as the NFC maintains its domination over the AFC. The Bills will dispute this, pointing out that as they are contesting their third successive Super Bowl they have a clear edge in experience.

As the first wild card team to make it to the big game since New England in 1985 they also have considerable momentum. Since producing the mother of all comebacks against Houston they have disposed of Pittsburgh and Miami, on the road, with some comfort.

Miami's 29-10 defeat by Buffalo in the AFC Championship game means that Dan Marino again misses out on the Super Bowl. Perhaps the biggest reason was his team's lack of top-class receivers. In their heyday Marks Clayton and Duper were the scourge of the league. Now both are in the thirties and dropped big passes against Buffalo. In a sport full of sparkling young receivers, the Marks brothers look out of date.

Having got to the Super Bowl (and lost) in his second year time is now running out for 31-year-old Marino, who is still widely regarded as the best of his generation.

In recent weeks Marino has often talked about his need to win a title. 'Super Bowl victories are a barometer for great quarterbacks,' he said, 'and I don't have one yet.' He still won't after this year's game.

All in all it was a bad day for great quarterbacks.