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Unbeaten 49ers edge Browns

The record says that the spirit of the San Francisco 49ers is flying somewhere just west of St. Louis, almost halfway to Tampa Bay and Super Bowl XXV. The results say that the 49ers are 7-0, good enough that the scattered talk of an unbeaten season doesn't seem out of line.

And the latest game, a 20-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns, says that it is time to break out all the familiar descriptions of Joe Montana, who once again showed that the final two minutes of a game are his alone.

Why, then, is 49ers safety Ronnie Lott scowling so fiercely?

"I don't think we're so great," Lott said with a frown that would have have been more in place in the Cleveland locker room. "Right now, I'd rate us about the sixth-best team in pro football."

Sixth-best? In a league that has only nine teams with winning records?

Sixth-best? The champions of the league for the past two seasons?

Sixth-best?

"That's how I feel," Lott said. "I can't sit here and reel off five other teams, but we're down the line. Today, we stepped back a little bit. Continuing to win without getting better is not great. Not putting teams away is not great."

And all of this was after a victory, remember.

But if the 49ers did not fall, Lott is correct that they at least stumbled. San Francisco may be un

beaten, but the Niners hardly looked unbeatable as they scrambled to salvage a game against the beleaguered Browns.

Before the game, it was Cleveland coach Bud Carson who looked as if he might lose his job. Afterward, it was quarterback Bernie Kosar.

For, with 4:18 to play in the third period, Carson jerked Kosar out of the lineup and inserted backup Mike Pagel. And if it was the move of a desperate man _ Carson's job future has been tenuous for weeks now _ it also was one of a man who was due for a break.

"The timing," admitted Pagel, "was strange."

Lo and behold, Pagel hit 13 of 21 passes, led the Browns to a pair of fourth-period touchdowns to pull a 17-3 deficit into a tie, and possibly kept Carson on the Browns payroll for another week.

Pagel's second touchdown pass, a 4-yarder to a diving Ozzie Newsome, left the 49ers in sad circumstance. After a first-down penalty, San Francisco had 62 seconds left and lined up 82 yards from the goal. It was cold, the wind was swirling, and Montana, frankly, was having a dreadful day. "I thought," 49ers linebacker Matt Millen said, "we were looking at overtime."

Instead, it was Montana-all-over time. Montana had struggled in the second half, and entering the final drive had only 31 yards passing in that half.

But on third-and-14, he hit wide receiver Mike Sherrard on a 35-yard completion (Sherrard broke his right ankle on the play and will miss the rest of the season) and four plays later Mike Cofer kicked a 45-yard field goal with five seconds left that took some of the ugly off the game for the 49ers.

"Every once in a while, a team has a game where nothing seems to go right, where no matter what, things go against you," said 49ers offensive tackle Bubba Paris. "Most teams lose those games. What makes this team great is that we don't. The true test of character is the final minutes."

That final drive invited Super Bowl memories _ the 26th time in his career Montana has pulled out a game in the fourth period _ so Lott will have to understand other 49ers having lofty ideas afterward.

Such as an unbeaten record.

For all of the 49ers' accomplishments, that's one they haven't pulled off. In fact, only one team (the 1972 Dolphins) has finished a season unbeaten.

"We're definitely thinking along those lines," said Paris. "Every week we go out with the idea of winning. So why not think about winning all of them?"

"Sure, it's possible," Millen said. "The exciting thing is that we haven't hit our stride. We're a good team, but we're not a great team. When everyone is playing as well as we can play, I don't see many teams in the universe being able to stop us."

How about the Rams? Last year, Los Angeles showed it matched up well against the 49ers, and two games remain between those two (Nov. 25 and Dec. 17).

How about the Giants? They're also unbeaten, and they visit San Francisco Dec. 3.

How about the Bengals? They played the 49ers close two years ago in the Super Bowl, and those two play Dec. 9.

After all, according to the latest Lott poll, those teams might all be ranked ahead of the 49ers.

"Right now, we're just good," Lott said. "We're not great. We have to quit reading our clippings and listening to what people are saying about us. We have to stop talking about being unbeaten. We have to forget about the division race.

"If we don't get better, none of that means anything."

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