January 06, 2003
By Roger Phillips STAFF WRITER
SAN FRANCISCO -- The momentum took on a life of its own.
Let's face it, the San Francisco 49ers were dead, the ashes of their season ready to be scattered, the postmortems ready to be conducted.
Then, a flicker, and from there a spark, and on and on to a raging fire that turned a 24-point deficit into a one-point lead.
It took Jeff Garcia's runs and throws and one catch after another by Terrell Owens and some key defensive stops and, near the end, a 13-yard touchdown catch by Tai Streets with precisely 1 minute on the clock.
And then, after all of that, it almost didn't matter. After all of that, the embers of the New York Giants' season had not quite been extinguished. It took an errant snap by a backup long-snapper on a 41-yard field-goal attempt with 9 seconds left to finally snuff out the Giants.
And once all that had happened, the 49ers had themselves a breathtaking 39-38 wild-card playoff victory Sunday over the Giants before 66,318 at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers now get to play another day, Sunday in Florida against Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"Wow," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "It was a great win for our team, a great come-from-behind win, one of those classics we'll remember for a long time. I don't know where to start. I'm proud to be their coach because, boy, they gave their hearts."
Predictably, Giants coach Jim Fassel was as downcast as Mariucci was jubilant.
"This is about the worst loss I have ever felt in my entire life," Fassel said, his team having to win its final four games to make the playoffs.
"I am not going to get over this one for a while. I am very proud of our team and the way we played. We should have been able to take it all the way. We worked hard to get here, but in the end the 49ers got us."
About an hour before, no one in his right mind would have believed that -- except, perhaps, a 49ers team with survival instincts of a cockroach.
This had seemed as if it would be the Giants' day almost all game, even after Owens' early 76-yard touchdown catch had given the 49ers a 7-0 lead.
From there, the Giants built a 38-14 lead with 4:27 left in the third quarter.
The 49ers had helped all day in their apparent demise.
They couldn't stop Giants receiver Amani Toomer, who would catch three touchdown passes and torch 49ers cornerback Ahmed Plummer for eight catches for 136 yards.
They made uncharacteristic mistakes, most glaringly a muffed punt by Cedrick Wilson at his 8 in a 14-14 game late in the first half. Wilson should have let the ball go but tried to make a play.
"I had my eyes on the ball," he said later, clearly relieved. "I looked down for a second to see if I had an opportunity to run. I shouldn't have stuck my hands up. It was just a bad decision."
Another bad decision came seconds later, becoming an interception by the Giants' Jason Sehorn on a pass Garcia intended for J.J. Stokes. The Giants marched down the field, with quarterback Kerry Collins hitting Toomer from 24 yards to put the 49ers in a two-touchdown hole at halftime.
In the locker room Owens sought to rouse his gloomy teammates.
"T.O. just inspired all of us today," Plummer said. "He doesn't get enough credit for that. He got up at halftime and made a speech. He told us the game wasn't over. We still had a chance. Today, he not only talked the talk, he walked the walk."
Owens said, "I just feel like the last few years, there were times I wanted to say something, but I sat in my locker and thought (Bryant Young) and (Dana Stubblefield) would say something. Today, I just felt I had to be the voice."
If Owens' words had an effect, it wasn't immediate.
Tiki Barber's 6-yard touchdown run and a 21-yard field goal by Matt Bryant seemed to presage a long 49ers off-season, one that surely would have begun with endless speculation about Mariucci's future as their coach.
The 49ers later would thank their fans for sticking with them, but at 38-14 there was a parade to the exits.
Anyone who left early missed the second-best comeback in 49ers history and the second-best comeback in NFL playoff history.
Only the 49ers' comeback 22 years ago from a 35-7 deficit against New Orleans, and only Buffalo's comeback in a playoff game nine years ago from a 35-3 deficit to the Houston Oilers were from further behind.
Their season on life-support, the 49ers turned to desperate measures. They went to their 2-minute offense. They went without huddles.
An offense that hadn't scored more than 23 points in nine games scored 25 in less than 19 minutes.
On the final four drives, producing three touchdowns and a 25-yard Jeff Chandler field goal, Garcia connected on 19 of 28 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns. His rating in that span was 113.2. Before then he had completed 8 of 16 for 124 yards, one touchdown and one interception, a rating of 70.8.
"I think by doing the 2-minute offense, we started to give ourselves an opportunity to get into a rhythm, to get into a position to allow our guys to make plays," Garcia said, an NFL playoff winner for the first time. "It was one play after the next of guys stepping up and playing ball."
On the first drive, the 49ers drove 70 yards in seven plays, scoring on a 26-yard pass from Garcia to Owens, then using the same combination for the 2-point conversion.
Next, the 49ers' defense finally stiffened, forcing the Giants into their first three-and-out of the day. Then the 49ers got two breaks.
First, a 29-yard punt by the Giants' Matt Allen with Vinny Sutherland making a fair catch. Sutherland, signed just last week, had taken over for Wilson. Second, the Giants' Dhani Jones ran into Sutherland, drawing a 15-yard flag.
The 49ers began this drive at the Giants 27, and the third play was Garcia's 14-yard touchdown run, followed by another 2-point pass to Owens. Suddenly, the deficit was 8 with 14:55 of the fourth quarter left.
"Momentum," Mariucci said later, "was wearing a red jersey."
After another three-and-out by the Giants came a 15-play, 74-yard 49ers drive that resulted in Chandler's field goal, cutting the deficit to 38-33.
On their next possession, the Giants finally moved the ball again, but on third-and-2 from the 49ers 25, Barber was stopped a yard short by Tony Parrish and Julian Peterson.
Bryant attempted a 42-yard field goal, but in a play that would foreshadow the ending he booted the ball wide left after a low snap by newly signed Trey Junkin.
Only 3:01 remained when the 49ers took over at their 32.
"I asked everybody, who could make a play?" Owens said. "I told them I could. Other guys chimed in."
Here was Garcia, hitting Owens for 7 yards on third-and-6, hitting Eric Johnson for 25 on third-and-3; running for 12 yards to the Giants' 13, misfiring to Stokes, then hitting Streets to put the 49ers ahead.
Seeing he was covered on a post route, Streets adjusted, and Garcia reacted.
"Jeff saw me pull up, and he threw it perfect," Streets said.
This 2-point conversion attempt failed, with Will Allen intercepting a pass to Owens. Allen ran the ball back upfield and then out of bounds, and was knocked down by Owens. The Giants' Shaun Williams knocked down Owens. Both received penalties, and Williams was ejected when he threw a punch.
"Shaun Williams tried to get into my head the whole game," Owens said.
The Giants weren't finished. Plummer appeared to intercept a deep pass to Toomer, but the play was ruled an incompletion. Still, the Giants reached the 49ers' 23 and lined up for their last-second bid for salvation.
Junkin's snap was low, and the holder, Matt Allen, picked up the ball, rolled to the right and heaved it down the middle. Penalty flags flew for ineligible receivers (interior linemen) downfield, and the game, at last, was over.
"It was hard watching them set up for that last field goal," Owens said. "But funny things happen in this league."
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