EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There can be no three-peat until there is a repeat.
The New York Giants, who lost to the two-time defending champion San Francisco 49ers earlier this season, will get another shot at the 49ers after they routed the Chicago Bears, 31-3, in a National Football Conference divisional playoff yesterday at Giants Stadium.
The Giants (14-3) will meet the 49ers (15-2) on Sunday at Candlestick Park in the NFC championship game (4 p.m.). The Giants lost, 7-3, to San Francisco on Dec. 3 in a game many of the New York players said they should have won.
"People kept saying that was a preview of the conference championship game," Giants linebacker Gary Reasons said. "They were right. It was a game in which we had the 49ers' number. In my opinion, we simply ran out of time. We played the better game."
"This is our chance to be part of history," Giants safety Dave Duerson said. "Not only is there an opportunity to win a Super Bowl, but we get a chance to knock off the two-time champion. And once you beat the best, no one can argue that you're the best team in football."
After yesterday, there may be some who say the Giants are the best team in the National Football League.
They mauled the Bears' rushing attack (27 total yards) and then floored Chicago's defense, as the Giants mounted four impressive drives while rushing for 194 yards.
Chicago entered the game allowing 152.3 total yards per game, 98.3 rushing. The Bears left with their heads hung low.
"They took it to us," Bears cornerback Donnell Woolford said. "This was billed as a street fight between two bullies. They pushed, and we pushed back. They fought, and we fought back. But, in the second half, it was no contest, then a knockout."
No player delivered more devastating punches than the Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler.
Hostetler, the seventh-year pro from West Virginia, completed 10 of 17 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Hostetler threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Stephen Baker in the left corner of the end zone to give New York a 10-0 lead with 1:04 left in the first period.
He then passed for a 5-yard touchdown to Howard Cross on a tight-end delay with 33 seconds left in the second quarter, which gave the Giants a 17-3 lead at halftime.
But most of Hostetler's damage came when he performed like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham (minus the playoff losses). Four times, Hostetler rushed for first downs to keep drives alive, and he scored on a 3-yard scramble with 10:41 left in the third period, putting the Giants ahead, 24-3.
Not bad for a guy who did not play one down in his first four seasons with the team. And not bad for a guy who replaced starter Phil Simms only a month ago, when Simms went down with a fractured right arch against the Buffalo Bills.
"I felt really good out there," said Hostetler, who completed 25 of 46 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns in the Giants' final two regular-season games. "I had some jitters, but when we opened the game with me passing from the end zone, that gave me a lot of confidence. I felt like David and Goliath out there, because a lot of people doubted me that this was such a big game. I'm just glad I played well."
Hostetler's running didn't catch the Bears off-guard, but his play-action fakes on first and second downs did. And when the Giants weren't winning the chess match, they simply overpowered the Bears. New York center Bart Oates manhandled Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary, and the Bears front four of Trace Armstrong, William Perry, Dan Hampton and Richard Dent were never a serious factor. Perry, 325 pounds, played well in the first half, but seemed tired by the third quarter.
New York had scoring drives of 75, 80, 49 and 51 yards, which lasted nine, 11, 11 and 16 plays.
"Once we got that rhythm, that flow, we kind of started moving them around," Oates said.
Giants coach Bill Parcells said: "Both teams approach the game similarly, so we opened up passing to loosen them up. If you open up with three straight runs up the middle, then you kind of feed their ego if they stop you. Our offense was predictable, but, then again, we weren't predictable, if you know what I mean."
The Giants weren't predictable on defense either. They switched from a regular 3-5 defense to a 4-3 yesterday. They also occasionally played with six men on the line of scrimmage. The Giants weren't overwhelming defensively, but they were effective.
But they may not have been effective enough to have beaten the 49ers yesterday. Bears quarterback Mike Tomczak completed 17 of 36 passes for 205 yards.
The Bears got inside the New York 25-yard line four times yesterday, and with the exception of a brilliant goal-line stand by the Giants midway in the first period, Chicago pretty much self-destructed.
The questions facing the Giants defense after the game were: Would Jerry Rice and John Taylor drop several passes? Would 49ers quarterback Joe Montana go 0-for-4 inside the 25?
"Remember, we put in a new defense just for this week," Reasons said. "We know we have to play extremely well to beat the 49ers. It's for the Super Bowl. You think we aren't going to turn it up a notch? They will. It ought to be interesting."