Wild-card pair: 2 comebacks

25-0 rush by 49ers stuns Giants, 39-38

Trash talking, kick muff part of 2nd-biggest rally

Nfl Playoffs

January 06, 2003|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN FRANCISCO - They say comatose patients can still hear, that people in the room with them should never stop talking.

The New York Giants, up by 24 late in the third quarter of yesterday's NFC wild-card game, talked trash. The San Francisco 49ers, with their vital signs apparently flatlined, got it loud and clear, kept talking to each other and kept their cool.

"I heard somebody ask who could make a play," 49ers receiver Terrell Owens said of the team's determination as the clock ran down. "I said I could. Then other guys chimed in."

Quarterback Jeff Garcia operated in the two-minute offense with the swift improvisation of an emergency-room surgeon to lead the 49ers back to within five points, then connected with Tai Streets on a 13-yard touchdown pass with one minute left.

Although the 49ers failed to convert the two-point conversion, an errant Giants snap snuffed a 41-yard field-goal try as time ran out, giving San Francisco a 39-38 victory. It was the second-biggest resuscitation in NFL playoff history, and it sent the crowd of 66,318 into delirium.

"In the fourth quarter, it seemed like we had so much more energy," said 49ers wide receiver J.J. Stokes. "They were taking their helmets off, wincing, breathing hard. I think they got winded. I think they relaxed and took us for granted a little bit.

"They were just a bunch of loudmouths. All they did was talk, talk, talk, trying to get us out of our game. It didn't work. They lost. They go home."

Garcia passed for 331 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another. Owens, coming off a two-week layoff due to a groin injury, also did double duty, throwing for one key 25-yard gain and catching nine passes for 177 yards.

"You try to emulate what the great ones do, what Joe Montana and Steve Young did," said Garcia, who got his first playoff victory. "Now I'm that guy. Maybe some kid wants to be Jeff Garcia. That's an awesome feeling."

The 49ers erased a 38-14 deficit, and one illustrious observer called it the most stirring comeback in franchise history.

"This was unsurpassed, unbelievable," said former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, now a team consultant. "As great a game as we've had. This team had to demonstrate to each other that they could play a great team and win.

"There have been games where the stakes were higher. ... This salvaged our season, which didn't look very good until the last 30 minutes. This was a playoff game against a red-hot, very, very good Giants team that a lot of people thought was going to the Super Bowl."

The Giants were as devastated as the 49ers were jubilant.

"This is about the worst loss I have ever felt," coach Jim Fassel said. "I am not going to get over this one for a while."

Quarterback Kerry Collins, who threw for four touchdowns in a 29-for-43, 342-yard performance, and Amani Toomer, who made his way into the end zone three times, saw their accomplishments nullified.

"You never think you have it won until there's no time on the clock," Collins said. "I didn't sense on the sidelines we thought we had it, and we just needed to coast the rest of the game."

The most obvious goat's horns will be worn by long snapper Trey Junkin, the 41-year-old veteran signed by the Giants last week when Dan O'Leary tore a ligament in his thumb. Junkin was the third snapper used by the Giants this season.

"I forgot rule No. 1," said Junkin, who blew two setups in the second half, including the decisive last one. "Always remember that you never make a perfect snap. Just make the snap."

Eyes glistening, he said he wished he had stayed retired. "I cost this team a chance to go to the Super Bowl," Junkin said. "This is the best team in the NFC, and I screwed it up."

Giants holder Matt Allen scooped up the ball and lobbed a desperation pass in the last few seconds, but New York, which was hoping for pass interference, was penalized for having illegal receivers downfield, ending the game.

Kicker Matt Bryant used a baseball metaphor to describe his feelings about what happened on the former diamond.

"Probably what's most frustrating of all is that I didn't get the chance," said Bryant, who kicked a 21-yarder in the third quarter but missed a 42-yarder.

"It's like a hitter at the plate with two outs in the ninth inning and the runner gets thrown out trying to steal second."

The teams came into the game with identical 10-6 records, but where the buoyant Giants were riding a four-game winning streak, the 49ers appeared to be taking on water. San Francisco went 3-4 in its last seven games and went belly up to the St. Louis Rams in its last regular-season game, giving up 28 points in the fourth quarter.

There was speculation that a loss yesterday would cost 49ers coach Steve Mariucci his job. Instead, he engineered the biggest postseason rally since Buffalo Bills and Maryland alum Frank Reich came back from a 35-3 third-quarter deficit against the Houston Oilers 10 years ago to win, 41-38 - and the 49ers survived to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next week.

Bonnie DeSimone is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

How 49ers did it

The deficit: 24 points (38-14 with 4:27 left in third quarter).

The comeback: The 49ers scored 25 points in the game's last 17:03.

The clincher: Tai Streets' 13-yard TD reception from Jeff Garcia with one minute left.

The frantic finish: On the game's final play, the Giants botched the snap on a possible 41-yard game-winning field-goal attempt and tried a desperation pass near the goal line that was incomplete. The Giants claimed interference, but they were penalized for illegal men downfield.

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