"To win this game," said 49ers coach George Seifert, "we have to take away Means."
"The key for us," said 49ers defensive tackle Bryant Young, "is to stop his running. Period."
"The way to beat San Diego," said safety Tim McDonald, "is to make Means disappear."
Being so visible, however, hardly concerns this soft-natured, 5-foot-10, 245-pound North Carolinian. Pressure, his teammates say, bounces off Means like 180-pound cornerbacks.
"He doesn't feel it (pressure) at all," said wide receiver Shawn Jefferson. "We'll be in the huddle before a big third down and he'll say, 'Y'all block. I'll take care of the rest.' "
He grew up, and out, in Harrisburg, N.C., a polite and friendly boy whose favorite meal was fried chicken and cheesecake. With such a diet, it wasn't too surprising that Means was the largest kid in his Pee-Wee football league when he signed up at 8.
"I was a running back right from the beginning," said Means. "I was big then, too, but God gave me a lot of athletic ability."
One can only imagine the terror those more typical Pee-Wees must have experienced when Means came rumbling toward them. Most of his early runs, he recalled, concluded with tiny bodies strewn in his wake.
"I always liked just dropping my head and running over guys," he said. ''I hit those kids so hard that the refs used to call me for unnecessary roughness."
As Means grew older, his bruising runs made opponents at every level cower. There was, however, an interruption of one year. It was then that his mother, Gwendolyn, whom he clearly still adores and fears, intervened.
"In eighth grade, she thought I was getting too big a head because of the success I was having," he said. "She said I was getting too cocky, and she made me sit out a year. I got the message."
Now he is beloved by his teammates. In fact, Means' sense of humor has frequently de-pressurized the Chargers' locker room. He intends to play that role again tonight.
"I'm not going to let them tighten up," said Means. "I'm going to be in the locker room the day of the game cracking jokes. I'm going to have to go jump on their backs and rub their heads a little bit. That's me."
In his first full season as an NFL starter, having left North Carolina after only three record-breaking seasons, Means has battered professional defenders, too. He rushed for a San Diego-record 1,350 yards. And in the two playoff victories that brought the Chargers to Miami, he added another 208.
"He is just an excellent running back," said 49ers fullback William Floyd. "He's big, and he's got very quick feet that allow him to get through holes in a hurry. Once he's through, he takes on defenders head-on. I love guys like him. Guys who love the contact. That's what this game is all about. When it first started out, you just hit somebody in the mouth. We've gotten away from that, but with guys like Means it's coming back."
People want to compare him to big, dominating runners of the past, bulky, bruising backs like Marion Motley or John Riggins. But neither possessed the speed or shiftiness that Means has.
"He might not have the blazing speed of some backs," said Bill Devaney, the Chargers' director of player personnel. "He might not have quite the shiftiness of Barry Sanders or quite the power of Jerome Bettis. But he has the whole package, and none of those other guys do."
There are a couple of other things that make Means essential to San Diego's chances tonight. For one thing, the Chargers hope to keep the ball from the Niners' explosive offense as long as possible.
"We can't afford to go three-and-out too many times," said San Diego coach Bobby Ross, "and that's where Natrone comes into play."
And Means is really the only big-play threat in a San Diego offense that features tough-but-erratic quarterback Stan Humphries and a no-name receiving crew.
Being a good team player, however, Means would not concede the wisdom of San Francisco's strategy.
"I think if they come out and totally shut me down, sure our chances would be cut," said Means. "But I don't think everything relies on me. We didn't get here by running the ball 50 times a game. That's something everybody overlooks. In the playoff game against Miami, Stan threw the ball over 40 times."
Still, you will likely get a good view of the Chargers' chances the first few times Means carries the ball. If defenders are ricocheting off him early, when they are fresh and eager, San Diego might just have a chance.
And if one of those prone defenders is brash Deion Sanders, a cornerback who acknowledges he hates to tackle, the Chargers might gain an emotional edge.
"If I could pick one way for us to start the game," said Humphries, "it would be Natrone on a sweep to Deion's side of the field. I could just see Natrone running over him."
As if Sanders were just another Pee-Wee.