Giants look to maintain momentum against 49ers at Candlestick

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO -- Kerry Collins and the Giants spent the last month winning a frantic fight to make the playoffs. Jeff Garcia and the 49ers spent it staying out of harm's way.

If momentum plays a role in Sunday's game, New York has a big edge. The Giants are rolling, and they're most prognosticators' picks to pull the upset of the wild-card round.

But as you might expect, the teams' quarterbacks have differing opinions on the merits of reaching the playoffs with a head of steam.

''It could be huge,'' Collins said.

''I don't think it makes a difference at this point,'' Garcia said.

The game is a rematch of the regular season opener, won 16-13 by the 49ers on a last-second field goal at the Meadowlands. Exactly four months later, the teams will meet again with identical 10-6 records -- but while the Giants have made significant progress this season, it's hard to tell whether San Francisco, despite another good record, has improved much at all.

New York won its last four games, including an impressive overtime victory over Philadelphia in its regular season finale to clinch a playoff spot. Collins was exceptional, becoming the NFC's offensive player of the month with a 105.6 passer rating in December. He completed more than 63 percent of his throws for 1,307 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Giants now have a confidence and a flair they rarely showed in the previous two seasons. Some trace the change to coach Jim Fassel's decision to start calling the plays; other believe they had it all along, but hadn't discovered it yet.

''The first time we played San Francisco, we weren't a very good team,'' running back Tiki Barber said. ''We made a lot of mistakes. We stopped doing that, and we found ways to score. We found ways to move the ball. It's exciting (to do it all) at the same time.''

Meanwhile, the Niners really haven't changed -- though Jose Cortez, the kicker who won the teams' first meeting, has been cut.

Playing in a much weaker division than the Giants, the 49ers clinched the NFC West title with three weeks to play despite a 3-4 slide in their final seven games. They also played last Monday night, giving them a short week of preparation for their second straight playoff appearance.

When Garcia, Terrell Owens, Garrison Hearst and San Francisco's powerful offensive line are all in sync, coach Steve Mariucci's offense is one of the NFL's most dangerous. Trouble is, nobody in the 49ers' locker room believes this team has even come close to playing a completely satisfying game this season.

''It's frustrating, because we know we're better than this,'' defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. ''You look around the room, and I honestly believe this group of guys shouldn't have lost more than once or twice.''

The teams will add another postseason meeting to their short but memorable common history at San Francisco. Twelve years ago, the Giants ended the Niners' bid for a third straight Super Bowl title with a 15-13 win in San Francisco in the NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park; three years later, the 49ers returned the favor with a 44-3 victory over the Giants.

Mariucci hasn't spent any time dwelling on history while preparing for the game, even though he might be history if the Niners lose. Most coaches who reach the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons wouldn't be on the hot seat, but San Francisco's campaign has been just that frustrating to fans and certain members of the front office.

The unflappable Mariucci still smiles, however. He believes in his players, just as he believes the Giants' momentum can be overcome with attention to fundamentals and details.

''When you go into the playoffs, you don't come up with new offenses and new defenses and start running 37 reverses and all those sort of things,'' Mariucci said. ''You tend to rely more on the elementary parts of football that sometimes, late in the year, might be forgotten.

''What I told them was to freshen up their bodies, because now is the time to review things in the playbook and be right assignment-wise. It's going to come down to out-executing the Giants.''

Fassel knows the feeling. When he began calling the Giants' plays, Fassel removed much of the extraneous shifting and motion that characterized their earlier game plans and went back to solid, straight-ahead football that has New York rolling.

But on the subject of momentum, Fassel agrees with Garcia.

''I think everything switches now,'' Fassel said. ''It's like starting a new season.''



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