SAN FRANCISCO -- As the ball arched up, up and then tumbled barely inside the left upright, Joe Montana was sitting on the bench. No time left for the Man of Miracles to do his weekly magic act, not even one second. On this day the man of the moment would be Matt Bahr, the Candlestick clock forcing either heroism or ignominy on him and him alone.
Bahr's 42-yard field goal with no time remaining kicked the New York Giants 3,000 miles, from San Francisco all the way to Tampa, Fla. There next Sunday they will meet their New York brethren, the Buffalo Bills, in pro football's ultimate game.
The 49ers, trying to win it for the third consecutive year, will be watching on television, left to reflect in bitter frustration on yesterday's 15-13 loss.
They will look back mostly on a fumble by one of football's most dependable running backs, Roger Craig, who lost the ball in the game's closing moments as the 49ers were on the verge of running out the clock.
They will remember linebacker Gary Reasons' long run on a fake punt in the fourth quarter that set up the Giants' fourth field goal.
They will remember the skeleton-shattering hit that knocked the senses out of Montana, leaving him with a broken hand and a bruised sternum with 10 minutes left.
And they will remember that, although they never allowed the Giants a touchdown, five field goals was enough to beat them.
"You saw a hell of a game today," Giants coach Bill Parcells said.
"I knew before we ever came out here that it was going to be a great game," Giants defensive back Everson Walls said. "If it wasn't a great game, it would be because they [the 49ers] weren't playing great. I knew we were going to play great."
Great teams don't always win, though. Yesterday the Giants were unquestionably the better team all day long. So even though the Giants were beating the stuffings out of the hosts all day long, here it was late in the fourth quarter and San Francisco was still winning, 13-12.
How odd was that? Well, consider that the Giants had the ball for 10 offensive series and barged past midfield on seven of them. As expected, they completely smothered San Francisco's ground game, limiting running backs Craig and Tom Rathman to 30 yards. Montana was 18-for-26, but he accounted for only 190 yards, 61 coming on one long strike to John Taylor.
So here were the 49ers, coming oh-so-close to hurrying the ball out of danger. When Bahr kicked his fourth field goal to narrow San Francisco's lead to one point, 5:47 remained.
With Steve Young taking over for Montana, the 49ers were able to erode more than three minutes off the clock. When Craig swept around end for 5 yards and a first down at New York's 40, 3 minutes were left, and it looked like the 49ers would either get a field goal or run out the clock.
"We knew they wanted to run," Giants nose tackle Erik Howard said. "We didn't have to worry much about them throwing, we just had to go after the ball."
He did. Craig came through the line, Howard ran a helmet right between the "33" on Craig's jersey, and the ball bounced right into the hands of Lawrence Taylor.
The 49ers were 2 1/2 minutes from going to their third Super Bowl in a row. Instead the Giants had it first-and-10 at their 43, and two pass completions by quarterback Jeff Hostetler gave Bahr the opportunity to be a hero.
On the sidelines, the Giants defense held hands and refused to look, appointing Walls to do a play-by-play for them as the field-goal unit lined up. The importance of it all certainly wasn't overlooked by New York center Bart Oates. "That was the do-or-die play," Oates said. "Make it, we win. Miss it, we go home."
Walls never had to say a word. "The silence of the crowd said it all, before I had a chance to speak," he said. "It was the most beautiful sound -- or non-sound -- I have ever heard."
Actually, Bahr's kick was only the final act of a day full of heroic plays. As much as anything, the outstanding play of Hostetler was the difference. And New York's defense ganged up on Montana, an equally important factor.
"We took away a lot of his short routes," Giants safety Greg Jackson said. "He wants to get rid of the ball fast, but we had
guys in all his favorite areas. He would look in there, see nothing, and then have to start running around. It had to be a frustrating day for him."
It will be a frustrating winter for the whole 49ers team. "I've never heard this locker room more quiet than it is now," linebacker Michael Walter said. "We were that close. When you're that close, you go back and look at every play when they got 1 more yard than they should have.
"It's a fine line between getting there [the Super Bowl] and not."