Contra Costa Times

A wild comeback
January 06, 2003
49ers wipe out 24-point deficit to stun Giants

By Cam Inman

SAN FRANCISCO - It officially went down as the second-greatest comeback victory in NFL playoff history.

To the 49ers, it couldn't get any better than this, overcoming a 38-14 deficit in the final 20 minutes to topple the New York Giants 39-38 in an epic, first-round playoff game Sunday before 66,318 at Candlestick Park.

"This is what this team used to be known for -- spectacular comebacks," 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "Now we put our own stamp on that, too."

Added 49ers defensive end Andre Carter: "It's another steppingstone to try to get back to that dynasty which was lost for so many years."

Bill Walsh, the creator of the dynasty that won five Super Bowls in 14 seasons from 1981-94, stood in the 49ers locker room afterward and marveled at what he just witnessed.

"This ranks right up there with our top victories," said Walsh, now a team consultant. "I'm so proud of those guys. They played with so much intensity and character."

Winning narrowly seemed so characteristic of this year's 49ers, who've rarely triumphed with ease but remain alive, advancing to Sunday's divisional matchup with the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4).

It was the greatest postseason comeback next to the 1992 Buffalo Bills' 32-point rally in a 41-38 overtime win over the Houston Oilers in a wild-card playoff game. It was also the 49ers' first playoff win since Jan. 3, 1999, when Terrell Owens caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Steve Young with three seconds left for a 30-27 home victory over the Green Bay Packers.

"When T.O. caught that pass from Steve Young, we weren't down 24, so that makes this more enjoyable and fascinating," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said.

The Giants lost their shot at a fifth straight win when they botched a 41-yard field goal attempt on a bad snap as time expired. "This is about the worst loss I have ever felt in my life," Giants coach Jim Fassel said.

How did the Giants (10-7) lose their 24-point lead? Simply, the 49ers (11-6) scored quickly, frequently and dominantly, just as the Giants did in the first half.

With one minute to spare, the comeback was complete, as quarterback Jeff Garcia threw a 13-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Tai Streets at the goal line for the 39-38 advantage.

Garcia's ensuing two-point conversion pass was intercepted by Will Allen, who was pushed out of bounds by Owens, sparking a sideline melee that resulted in Giants safety Shaun Williams' ejection for punching 49ers center Jeremy Newberry.

Newberry last week boasted that the 49ers were going to "kick their (butts)." Another game has brought another vow from Newberry, who said of the impending trip to Tampa: "We're going to go out and win that ballgame, too. I have the same approach to every game."

Owens changed his approach at halftime, breaking his usual locker-room silence to address the team before it went out for the second half. He remembered being told about a magazine article that tabbed the 49ers as pretenders, and after Mariucci addressed the team, Owens spoke out in the middle of the locker room.

"We were about to say, 'Go Niners,' and go out for the second half when T.O. stood up. I think that was the turning point of the game," 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson said. "We're not used to hearing Terrell say stuff. When he did, we all felt the same."

Said Owens: "Pretender or contender, that was the gist of my speech. That's the first time I've ever done it. I vowed to myself last year that after the hard loss in Green Bay that I was going to do whatever I had to do, whether it's speak up or make plays. I knew it was a long shot, down 28-14, but something had to be said and something had to be done."

Held to four catches for 41 yards in last year's 25-15 wild-card loss at Green Bay, Owens became Garcia's go-to guy and finished with nine receptions for 177 yards and two touchdowns.

"For him to not only talk up but also do what he did, it's one of the greatest games I've seen," 49ers cornerback Ahmed Plummer said.

Plummer's day wasn't so great, giving up three first-half touchdown receptions to the Giants' Amani Toomer, a De La Salle High School graduate who had eight catches for 136 yards.

The Giants went into halftime with a 28-14 lead. It ballooned to 38-14 thanks to a 6-yard run by Tiki Barber and then a 21-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.

"When you're down 38-14, you're supposed to throw in the towel and forget about it, unless you're a 49er," Mariucci said.

With 4:22 remaining in the third quarter, the 49ers took over at their 30 and unveiled a no-huddle attack that the Giants had no answer for. Seven plays later, Garcia hit Owens on a slant pattern for a 26-yard touchdown. Owens, who bounced off two defenders for a 76-yard touchdown reception on the 49ers' first offensive play of the game, slammed into Allen at the goal line for his second scoring catch.

Owens then caught Garcia's two-point conversion pass, recharging the crowd and leading Giants defensive end Michael Strahan to direct Owens' attention to the scoreboard.

However, as Mariucci said, "Momentum was wearing a red jersey."

Down 38-22, the 49ers turned to their defense, and after John Engelberger sacked Kerry Collins on third down, the 49ers got an even bigger boost. Vinny Sutherland called for a fair catch on an ensuing punt, and Giants linebacker Dhani Jones hit Sutherland, resulting in a 15-yard penalty that vaulted the 49ers to the Giants 27.

Garcia connected on two short passes, then faked a handoff and scooted around left end for a 14-yard touchdown run. Garcia again threw to Owens for a two-point conversion.

The deficit: 38-30. Time remaining: 14:55.

The Giants again went three-and-out, and the 49ers drove for a 25-yard field goal from Jeff Chandler with 7:49 remaining.

The Giants tried answering with their own field goal, but Bryant shanked his 42-yard attempt, and the 49ers took over at their 32 with 3:01 remaining.

That eventual winning drive stayed alive with third-down receptions by Owens (7-yarder to the 49ers 43) and tight end Eric Johnson (25-yarder to the Giants 25). With 1:05 remaining, Garcia surveyed the Giants coverage, took the snap and tossed a dart to Streets, who was in single coverage against cornerback Will Peterson. Garcia said Streets is typically the third option on that play, but that changed when he noticed that Owens and Stokes had drawn double coverage.

"I knew before the snap were I was going with that football," Garcia said. "It surprised me their corner just sat and didn't react. This offense has been around a long time and we've shown that play quite a few times."

Said Streets: "We've run it a lot. It was defended for the most part of this year. Luckily it was open this time."

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