The Press Democrat

49ers snap back to life
January 06, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO -- A year removed from his nadir with the 49ers, Terrell Owens was not grumbling and he certainly did not demand to be traded.

Instead, in the post-game locker room Sunday, he was relishing his accustomed role as one of the game's top play-makers and his newly appointed role as a leader on a team that had found itself in dire need of an emotional charge.

Who wasn't proud to be a member of the 49ers on Sunday, a day when they turned boos at Candlestick Park into some of the loudest cheers this patch of landfill has ever heard?

The 49ers kept their season alive in most dramatic fashion, rallying for 25 unanswered points in the final 17 minutes for a heart-stopping 39-38 victory over the New York Giants in an NFC wild-card playoff game.

"They say it's the second-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "Boy, did it take everybody. When you're down 38-14, it's easy to throw in the towel, unless you're a 49er. It took everyone in the stadium."

There were many heroes for the 49ers, who advance to an NFC divisional playoff game 10 a.m. next Sunday at Tampa against the Buccaneers.

And for at least one day, nobody was talking about Mariucci's future with the 49ers. He is scheduled to enter into contract negotiations with team ownership at the conclusion of the season. And that will have to wait at least another week.

Quarterback Jeff Garcia made his first NFL postseason victory a memorable one, calmly leading the 49ers on scoring drives in their final four possessions.

And when everybody was looking for Owens in the final minute, it was Tai Streets who caught the 13-yard touchdown pass from Garcia to give the 49ers a one-point lead -- the first they held since early in the game when Owens took a short pass 76 yards for a touchdown.

"It's just hard to fathom right now," Garcia said. "I can't even grasp my emotions."

Comeback ranks 2nd in NFL history

The 49ers' defense, which allowed five touchdowns in six Giants' possessions in the middle of the game, came up with two three-and-outs to help support the comeback.

The 24-point comeback ranks second in NFL playoff history behind Buffalo's 32-point comeback victory over the Houston Oilers in January 1993.

It might have gone down as the most agonizing loss in 49ers' history if not for the Giants' futility on special teams.

Trey Junkin, New York's recently signed veteran center, botched a long snap and rookie Matt Bryant's 42-yard field-goal attempt badly missed. With 3:01 remaining, the 49ers took over, down by five points, 38-33.

After Garcia led the 49ers on their rapid scoring drive, the Giants moved to the 49ers' 23-yard line with :06 remaining, and on third down sent out Bryant for a 41-yard attempt for the victory. It was reminiscent of January 20, 1991, a game that goes down as one of the 49ers' most difficult playoff losses.

The 49ers had won two consecutive Super Bowls and appeared destined for a third until the Giants' Matt Bahr nailed a 42-yard field goal as time expired for a 15-13 victory in the NFC Championship at Candlestick.

But Bryant, who was kicking at the same end of the field as Bahr 12 years earlier, never got a chance to kick. Junkin's snap was wide, and holder Matt Allen was forced to scramble to his feet and attempt a pass downfield to an ineligible receiver.

"This is about the worst loss I have ever felt in my entire life," Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "I am not going to get over this one for a while."

Owens central to victory

Owens, who feuded publicly with Mariucci last season and called his agent from the locker room to demand a trade after their first-round playoff loss a year ago to Green Bay, was all smiles after Sunday's game.

"I was enjoying the moment," he said. "Now I'm part of a great organization."

Ignored as a part of the offense in the playoff loss last season, Owens was the central figure for the 49ers on Sunday. He caught nine passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught two critical two-point conversion passes and helped set up another touchdown with a 25-yard pass.

And when the 49ers went into halftime trailing, 28-14, Owens stepped into a role he mostly has avoided during his seven seasons with the team.

Owens addressed his teammates at halftime, and asked the question: "Are we pretenders or are we contenders?"

"The last few years I've wanted to get up and say something to the team, but I sat at my locker," Owens said. "I thought Bryant Young or Dana Stubblefield or some of the other vets would say something. Today, I had to be the voice."

So were they pretenders or contenders?

That answer seemed to be obvious when the 49ers failed on a fourth-and-1 near midfield and the Giants promptly moved down the field and scored on Tiki Barber's 6-yard run for a 35-14 lead.

That answer seemed to be obvious a few minutes later when Giants rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey broke free in the end zone for what looked would be an easy 3-yard scoring catch.

But when the ball skipped off Shockey's hands, and the Giants settled for a short field goal, the 49ers had one of the many openings they would need.

On Saturday night, Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, now a team consultant, addressed the team.

"'What if we're behind by 20? What if you drop a pass?' I just posed the question," Walsh said. "They gave the answers."

Did they ever.

The 49ers had no other choice but to go with the no-huddle offense, and they caught the Giants on their heels.

Garcia, who completed 27 of 44 passes for 331 yards with three touchdowns, hooked up with Owens on a 26-yard scoring pass and a two-point conversion to pull the 49ers within 38-22.

Garcia capped the next drive with a 14-yard bootleg run for a touchdown.

After they settled for Jeff Chandler's 25-yard field goal, Garcia engineered a nine-play, 68-yard drive that culminated with a 13-yard dart to Streets in the end zone for the go-ahead points.

Game not about Giants

In the end, 49ers center Jeremy Newberry said this game was not about the Giants. He angered the 49ers' opponent with his declaration last week: "We're going to kick their ass."

He said he heard plenty from Giants safety Omar Stoutmire. But Newberrysaid it was that team-wide attitude that kept the 49ers in the game when they were getting blown out.

"I didn't say that to disrespect them," Newberry said. "I said what I said because I'm confident in the guys I'm going to war with every game. The Giants are a great team and they've been playing well and they had a lot of confidence coming into the game. I wasn't trying to call anybody out.

"I'm confident we're going to win every time we take the field. I have the same confidence this week, too. I don't think anybody on my team thought we were going to lose."

And that, in itself, may have made them unique.

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