The Press Democrat

Niners win a wild one
January 06, 2003
Improbable comeback victory vaults team into playoff history


SAN FRANCISCO -- Even an organization that has seen spectacular success in the playoffs had never seen one quite like this.

Few have. File this one under the heading, "Instant Classic."

Behind the unshakable arm of quarterback Jeff Garcia and the playmaking ability of receiver Terrell Owens, the 49ers overcame a 24-point deficit late in the third quarter to post an improbable 39-38 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday in an NFC wild-card playoff game at Candlestick Park.

"This ranks with the top victories this team has ever seen," said 49ers architect Bill Walsh, now a consultant for the organization.

"We won a Super Bowl and a conference championship this way, but this game is right with those. I'm just proud of every one of these guys. They were down 38-14, and they were playing as hard as they can play. They showed a lot of character," Walsh said.

The 49ers advance to an NFC divisional playoff Sunday in Florida against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 10 a.m. The winner of that game goes to the NFC Championship game against Saturday's Atlanta-Philadelphia winner.

"We took another step to the Super Bowl, that's what's important," Owens said.

This ranks instantly as one of the 49ers' top postseason moments.

There was Dwight Clark's catch from Joe Montana in the closing minute against the Dallas Cowboys in January 1982 that sent the 49ers to their first Super Bowl. There was John Taylor's 10-yard catch from Montana in the final seconds to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII in January 1989.

More recently, 49ers coach Steve Mariucci's last playoff victory also came in dramatic fashion when Owens made a leaping 25-yard catch from Steve Young with three seconds remaining for a 30-27 victory over the Green Bay Packers in January 1999.

"We weren't down 24 points, that's for sure," Mariucci said. "So that makes this one more enjoyable, more fascinating."

Aside from being the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history, it was also the second-biggest comeback in 49ers history, ranking behind only a 28-point comeback victory in 1980 over the New Orleans Saints.

"To play a game like that and put our heart and soul on the field, it leaves you a little zapped afterward," Garcia said. "It's probably the most exciting feeling I've felt in a long time."

Garcia, who has earned three trips to the Pro Bowl, won his first playoff game. Nothing has ever come easy for the man who was not given a chance by any NFL club until he served a five-year apprenticeship in the Canadian Football League.

Down 24 points in the third quarter, Garcia led the 49ers down the field with the no-huddle offense because they did not have any time to waste. He found Owens on a 26-yard scoring pass and then hooked up with his top receiver for the two-point conversion to pull within 16 points.

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

Garcia ran 14 yards for another touchdown just two minutes later. Another two-point conversion pass to Owens pulled the 49ers to within 38-30.

The 49ers added a field goal, and the Giants botched a 42-yard field-goal attempt to give the 49ers possession at their own 32-yard line with 3:01 remaining.

The 49ers had one final chance to prolong their season, and they responded. Garcia meticulously marched the 49ers down the field. Tight end Eric Johnson had a 25-yard reception and Garcia ran 12 yards to the Giants' 13-yard line.

While everyone was looking for Garcia to get the ball to Owens one final time, it was receiver Tai Streets who worked free in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:00 remaining in the game.

The 49ers survived a final Giants botched field-goal attempt as Candlestick Park broke out in pandemonium.

Garcia completed 27 of 33 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for a game-high 60 yards on seven carries.

Walsh, the man responsible for bringing Montana, Young and Garcia to the organization, said what happened Sunday might have been the most inspired performance he's ever seen from a 49ers quarterback.

"When has Joe played a better game? And when has Steve played a better game?" Walsh asked. "They've played comparable games with big stakes, but Jeff was there and he did it."

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