Sacramento Bee

January 06, 2003
49ers, behind by 24, post second-biggest playoff rally

By Mike Triplett -- Bee Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- You can't have the second-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history without being really, really bad for a while, and then being really, really good.

The 49ers went to extremes on Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park, putting together an extremely entertaining -- if not exactly thorough -- 39-38 playoff victory over the New York Giants in the opening round of the NFC playoffs.

San Francisco trailed 38-14 with 17 minutes remaining before Jeff Garcia threw two touchdown passes and ran for another. The victory was not sealed until the Giants botched a snap on a 41-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds. Holder Matt Allen wound up heaving a desperation pass that fluttered harmlessly to the ground near a lineman who was ruled an ineligible receiver.

The 49ers waited four years for this playoff victory, so they figured they had better make it memorable. Only the Buffalo Bills' comeback from a 35-3 deficit for a 41-38 overtime win over the Houston Oilers, almost 10 years to the day, looms larger.

Now the 49ers will travel to Tampa Bay for a divisional playoff next Sunday, with the winner earning a trip to the NFC championship game.

"Wow," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said after winning his first playoff game since the 49ers' equally remarkable last-second victory over Green Bay on the same field four years ago.

"It was very similar," the coach continued, comparing the wins. "We weren't down 24 points, that's for sure. That makes this a little more exciting, a little more fascinating.

"It's a great win for our team, a great come-from-behind win. One of those classics that will be remembered for a long time."

Whether Mariucci secured his coaching future with the 49ers beyond the 2003 season remains to be seen. But his unbridled emotion as he hugged whoever he could find during the on-field celebration seemed to show that taking part in this victory was reward enough.

The 49ers were a team that could do nothing right before suddenly they could do no wrong. Giants quarterback Kerry Collins threw four touchdown passes, three of them to receiver Amani Toomer, and New York scored five touchdowns and a field goal in a span of six offensive drives.

The 49ers were letting the Giants run and pass.

The 49ers handed over an interception and a fumbled punt return. The 49ers failed on fourth and inches at midfield. It was a snowball effect on a gorgeous afternoon.

But the 49ers stayed calm, deciding that the time on the clock was their one ally.

Garcia said he reminded his teammates in the huddle that they had been in similar situations and prevailed recently -- last month at Dallas, in fact -- with less time on the clock.

Receiver Terrell Owens was equally inspiring, the unlikely source of a halftime speech, with his team down 28-14.

"I thought I should say something. 'Are we pretenders or are we contenders?' " said Owens, who backed up his words with a performance that far overshadowed his four catches for 40 yards in a playoff loss at Green Bay last January.

Sunday, Owens caught nine passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught two two-point conversion passes and threw a 25-yard pass to Tai Streets.

"I asked everybody in the huddle, 'Who can make a play?' " Owens said. "I told them I could. Then other guys chimed in and said, 'I can.' After that heartbreaking loss in Green Bay, I knew I was gonna do whatever I could do."

Early in the third quarter, the 49ers switched to a no-huddle offense, and they never switched back.

They finally hit on the best way to exploit the talents of their best players. And no one will argue -- especially not after this game -- that those two players are Owens and Garcia.

Garcia has had an extremely up-and-down season, but almost without fail, he is up every time the 49ers are down. A day after Brett Favre's Packers stumbled against Atlanta, one could argue that Garcia is the best come-from-behind quarterback in the game today.

Or at least in the literal sense of today, where only eight playoff teams remain.

"That's what Jeff does," Owens bragged of his quarterback's late heroics. "He's a competitor. He's the ultimate competitor.

A lot of people talk about Brett Favre. But with our backs against the wall, that's when we play our best. That's when he plays his best."

Mariucci said the 49ers decided to stick with the no-huddle, even when the score became close and the desperation wasn't as apparent, because it was working so well.

In that respect, the 49ers might want to stick with the no-huddle next week against the NFL's No. 1 defense.

The tide began turning on the 49ers' first no-huddle drive. Garcia hit Owens with a 26-yard touchdown pass and a two-point conversion pass with 2:03 remaining in the third quarter, bringing the 49ers within 38-22.

The 49ers' defense responded with a three-and-out that included a sack by end John Engelberger. And on the ensuing punt, the Giants tackled Vinny Sutherland, who had called for a fair catch.

The 49ers took over on New York's 27 and needed just three plays for Garcia to score on a 14-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter. Another two-point conversion and it was 38-30, a one-score game, with 14:55 to play.

The pressure seemingly off, the 49ers didn't slow down. The defense posted another three-and-out, and the 49ers settled for a field goal after a 15-play drive that brought them within 38-33. The Giants then chewed some clock, but Matt Bryant missed a field goal that also was affected by a low snap.

The 49ers had 3:01 remaining to try to take the lead.

Nine plays and less than two minutes later, Garcia had the 49ers back in the end zone, hitting Streets -- his third option on the play -- with a 13-yard touchdown pass that gave the 49ers a 39-38 lead.

They missed the two-point conversion and gave the Giants exactly one minute to try for a game-winning field goal.

Mariucci was asked if he was worried about leaving too much time on the clock for the Giants.

"At that point," the coach said, "we weren't being choosy."

But it made for some tense moments. The Giants drove into field-goal range, even though it looked as if 49ers cornerback Ahmed Plummer, who had a rough day, had redeemed himself with an interception that was ruled incomplete.

With six seconds to go, the snap was bad, the Giants' desperation play failed, and the 49ers had secured one of the most improbable victories in their franchise's proud history.

"It's one of those things where you hope for the worst possible thing for them," said the hero, Garcia, about his fallen opponents. "And it happens."

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