It's an old horror story, one so distant that few people in the 49ers' organization today are likely to remember the grisly details.
But the last time San Francisco traveled to the Georgia Dome for a playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons, it wasn't a pretty experience. In fact, the 20-18 loss the 49ers suffered on Jan. 9, 1999 turned out to be a certifiable nightmare that had lasting repercussions for the franchise.
In what proved to be his final playoff game, quarterback Steve Young threw three interceptions a week after throwing a game-winning touchdown to Terrell Owens in a thrilling 30-27 victory over Green Bay.
Tailback Garrison Hearst, who had set a club rushing record with 1,570 yards during the 1998 regular season and added 128 more in the Packers victory, badly fractured his left ankle on the first play from scrimmage. He would miss the next two seasons as a result.
The 49ers not only lost Hearst to injury but backup Terry Kirby as well and finished the game with just 46 yards rushing, 28 of those by Young simply scrambling for his life.
Then there was the heart attack incident very few people even know about, but it's what former coach Steve Mariucci remembered most vividly about that awful day.
"We're on defense in the middle of the game and Rodney Knox (a 49ers media relations rep) comes up to me on the sideline and says, 'Coach, we have a situation -- Chris Doleman's mom had a heart attack in the stands,'
Doleman, a future Hall of Fame defensive end who led the team with 15 sacks that year, couldn't understand why Mariucci was frantically waving his arms at him to come out.
"I never made any defensive substitutions, so Chris couldn't figure out why I was waving him to come out," he said. "I finally got him to come over and told him about his mother, who had been taken to our locker room. I don't know if anyone's ever told this story, but he rode in the ambulance to the hospital with his uniform on -- pads and all -- and then came back and finished in the game. Crazy day."
The only good news to come out of that day, Mariucci added, is that Doleman's mother survived the heart attack and is still living to this day.
Most people remember the Hearst injury as one that discombulated the offense from the start. As the 49ers started the game deep in their own territory, Hearst followed a left tackle Derrick Deese block and found open space in the left flat, but while making a cut, inexplicably went down in a heap.
"He wasn't even tackled," said Mariucci.
Hearst said many times subsequently he felt he might have scored on a long play, or at least run a long way. Instead, he would endure seven surgeries and a tenuous two-year rehab to get back to the playing field, a stretch during which the 49ers went 10-22.
"We've talked about it many times whether he would have scored," said Deese. "He'd already gained about 10 yards when he went down (actually 7). It would have been a great way to start the game, but all of a sudden our game plan's out the window."
The Falcons were a good team in '98. They won the NFC West with a 14-2 record while the 49ers were 12-4, but San Francisco had beaten them fairly soundly in late September, 31-20. But playing inside the Georgia Dome, Atlanta was buoyed by its home fans and a fast start and managed to hold on in the late going.
Neither Deese nor Mariucci see the 49ers team suffering the same kind of fate Sunday the 1998 team did 14 years ago. Both believe San Francisco will win.
"The Georgia Dome is going to be rocking and it could create some communication issues for the offense," Deese said. "When you go on the road, I was always taught you pack your defense and your special teams because the crowd can take the offense out. But they can't take this defense out."
Mariucci, meanwhile, thinks the offense will be just fine and that the defense could dominate.
"The 49ers run the football so well and so differently than other teams in the league and Atlanta's run defense hasn't been all that good," Mariucci said. "The Falcons have a lot of offensive weapons but they're going against a defense with six Pro Bowlers. Atlanta could have problems running the ball and if that happens, they'll have trouble protecting Matt Ryan. So I give the advantage to the 49ers."