San Jose Mercury

A rally to remember
January 06, 2003
By Dennis Georgatos
Mercury News

The 49ers' last drive began with a question that was answered in the huddle one by one.

``Who can make a play?'' Terrell Owens asked. ``I told 'em, `I could.' Then the other guys chimed in: `I can. I can.' ''

And they did. They all did in completing a remarkable rally from 24 points down.

It was Tai Streets who made the last catch on the 49ers' last drive, cradling the 13-yard go-ahead pass from Jeff Garcia with a minute left. Then the 49ers weathered one more march and New York's botched field-goal try Sunday to beat the Giants 39-38 and advance to a second-round playoff game at Tampa Bay.

``We never put our heads down and said our season was over,'' 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. ``We just kept fighting.''

Coach Steve Mariucci, who has fought rumors about his job security, summed it up with one word: ``Wow!''

That's understandable because when the 49ers fell behind 38-14 with 4 1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, they seemed headed for a first-round exit. Instead, the 49ers pulled off the second-biggest comeback in the playoffs and second-biggest in club history.

``I can't even grasp my emotions right now,'' Garcia said. ``To play a game like that and put our heart and soul on the field, it leaves you a little zapped afterward. But it's probably the most exciting feeling I've felt in a long time.''

The 49ers' largest comeback came when Joe Montana helped San Francisco erase a 28-point deficit against New Orleans in a 38-35 overtime victory in 1980. The greatest deficit overcome in the NFL postseason featured Buffalo beating Houston 41-38 in 1993 after trailing by 32 points.

``This is about the worst loss I have ever felt,'' Giants Coach Jim Fassel said. ``I'm not going to get over this one for a while. 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.''

Garcia threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns and was the 49ers' leading rusher, with seven carries for 60 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter as the 49ers pulled to within 38-30.

Jeff Chandler's field goal cut the 49ers' deficit to 38-33, and the 49ers got the ball back at their 32-yard line with 3:01 remaining after newly signed Trey Junkin made the first of two errant snaps on Giants field-goal tries, leading Matt Bryant to miss wide left.

Garcia, using the hurry-up mode that got the 49ers back in the game, started the team moving on its final drive with a 4-yard pass to J.J. Stokes. Sandwiched around a 7-yard completion to Owens were two incomplete passes, leaving the 49ers with a second-and-10 at their 43.

Tight end Eric Johnson made the next two receptions, barreling down the left sideline for a 25-yard gain with the second before Garcia scrambled 12 yards to the 13.

After an incomplete pass, Garcia eluded pressure, saw Owens and Stokes drawing double coverage and then went to his third option, hitting Streets for the go-ahead touchdown.

49ers center Jeremy Newberry, who made headlines with a pregame vow that the 49ers would kick the Giants' butt, ran to the goal line and bear-hugged Streets.

``I just was so caught up in the moment,'' Newberry said. ``I was excited as could be. That's the beautiful part about this game. You can still act like a 10-year-old kid out there. It was just an awesome experience.''

Streets didn't allow himself much celebration.

``We knew the Giants weren't going to give up. We knew we had to keep cheering for the defense and special teams,'' Streets said.

Delvin Joyce gave the Giants hope with a 32-yard kickoff return to the 48.

When Kerry Collins completed a 5-yard pass to Amani Toomer to the 49ers' 23, the Giants were in position to attempt a 41-yard field goal with six seconds remaining.

``That was the hardest part, watching them line up for that field goal,'' said Owens, who had touchdown catches of 76 and 26 yards among his nine receptions for 177 yards. ``But sometimes, funny things happen in this league.''

Holder Matt Allen couldn't handle Junkin's second consecutive low snap, and Bryant never got the kick away. Allen, scrambling to his right, launched a desperation pass that fell incomplete.

``That was like slow motion,'' cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. ``Everyone was running around and then it was over. It just feels great to get to the second round. Last year, we got knocked out in the first round. Now we're one step closer to our goal.''

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