Wild-card favorites come from behind to win

49ers overcome largest NFC postseason deficit

Posted: Monday, January 06, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO -- Buried in a 24-point playoff hole after a season of missed opportunities, the San Francisco 49ers finally woke up.

After that, Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens could do nothing wrong -- and the New York Giants made a monumental collapse, all the way down to their new long snapper.

Garcia hit Tai Streets with a 13-yard touchdown pass with 1 minute left, and the Giants botched the snap on a 41-yard field-goal attempt as time expired in San Francisco's 39-38 victory Sunday. It was the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.

Right down to a confusing, contentious ending, it was a game with more twists, turns and dramatic moments than most teams would see in years -- from Amani Toomer's three touchdown catches to Kerry Collins' impressive performance, from Garcia's impossibly gutsy leadership to the fight that broke out at the height of the tension.

The 49ers (11-6) trailed 38-14 with 4 minutes left in the third quarter, but they scored 25 straight points on two TD passes and a scoring run by Garcia, as well as two 2-point conversion catches by Owens.

After Garcia drove the Niners 68 yards in just over 2 minutes for Streets' score, Collins got New York to the San Francisco 28 with 6 seconds left. But long snapper Trey Junkin, signed earlier in the week, made a low snap that Matt Allen couldn't handle.

Allen threw a desperate pass that fell incomplete, and after New York was penalized for illegal men downfield, the Niners leaped, sprinted and collapsed onto the field in a raucous celebration before an exhausted Candlestick crowd.

''This is something I've done for 32 years, but not anymore,'' Junkin said.

The 49ers advanced to face Tampa Bay next Sunday, but the Buccaneers will have no idea which San Francisco team they'll face: the one that stumbled through the first 40 minutes, or the one that flattened the Giants with an unbelievable rally.

''It's a great feeling,'' Garcia said. ''It's going to be a short-lived excitement, but the team needs to come back and get ready for a difficult game next week in Tampa.''

The 49ers' rally was the biggest in NFC playoff history. Only Buffalo's 32-point comeback in a 41-38 victory over Houston in January 1993 was bigger.

The Niners were saved by Garcia and Owens, who teamed for the franchise's first playoff victory during Garcia's three seasons as the starter -- a victory that might have saved coach Steve Mariucci's job.

Garcia went 27-of-44 for 331 yards and three TDs. He also rushed for 60 yards, including a 14-yard score on the first play of the fourth quarter. Two of Garcia's TD throws went to Owens, who had nine catches for 177 yards -- most of them while dragging defenders or sprinting past them after catches.

Though New York's collapsing defense should bear most of the blame for the debacle, the Giants (10-7) finally were undone by Junkin, a 41-year-old veteran. He put in his retirement papers last month, but was signed to replace injured Dan O'Leary.

''I was watching all these bad snaps and wondering: 'How many games are you going to lose over a snap?' It was frustrating,'' Junkin said earlier this week.

On the final play, Junkin's snap was low and away. Allen never had a chance to set it up for Matt Bryant.

The Giants won four straight to make the postseason, and dominated the first 40 minutes. Collins was 29-of-43 for 342 yards and four touchdowns, expertly guiding New York to a lead that seemed insurmountable, while Toomer caught eight passes for 136 yards.

Tiki Barber, who had 115 yards rushing and 62 yards receiving, blew a kiss to the stunned Candlestick crowd after he scored to put New York up 35-14.

But the Niners rallied with a purpose and poise that they've rarely shown this season. Owens caught a 26-yard TD pass late in the third quarter to start the rally, and made big catches on every drive -- right up to the final minutes, when Garcia found Streets in the left corner for a score.

When Will Allen intercepted Garcia's subsequent 2-point conversion attempt, he was tossed to the ground by Owens. It ignited a fight in which New York safety Shaun Williams got ejected for tearing off Jeremy Newberry's helmet and throwing a punch.

Until the final 20 minutes, New York seemed more prepared and more confident than San Francisco.

Toomer tied an NFL record with three touchdown catches, embarrassing Niners cornerback Ahmed Plummer on all three as Collins dissected San Francisco's secondary.

Jeremy Shockey, the Giants' brash rookie tight end, taunted the 49ers' sideline after just his second reception -- and threw ice water in the direction of heckling fans in a moment of frustration on the New York sideline.

But Shockey, who had seven catches for 68 yards, dropped a potential TD pass late in the third quarter, forcing New York to kick a field goal.

Collins clapped both of his hands on the side of his helmet, even though he drove New York into range for two failed field-goal attempts in the final minutes.

The Giants never scored again -- and San Francisco rolled into the conference semifinals.

One possession after New York's field goal, the Niners shook off their season of cautious play and drove for two quick scores, while their defense held the Giants to their first two three-and-out drives of the game.

After Owens caught a 26-yard TD pass and a 2-point conversion with 2:03 left in the third, Garcia rushed for a 14-yard score and threw another conversion pass to Owens 5 seconds into the fourth quarter. Jeff Chandler added a 25-yard field goal with 7:49 left.

The final seconds were exhausting and confusing. Collins drove New York 38 yards, but Bryant -- kicking out of a poor hold, thanks to another poor snap by Junkin -- missed a 42-yard field goal with 3:01 left.

The Giants had a fourth-and-1, but decided to kick despite their season-long kicking problems. They've also had short-yardage problems.

Garcia took over, converting two straight third downs for the NFL leaders in that category. Tight end Eric Johnson caught a 25-yard pass to the New York 25, and Garcia scrambled 12 yards to set up his scoring pass to Streets.

Will Allen intercepted Garcia's 2-point conversion pass, but a fight began on the 49ers' sideline when Williams confronted Owens and then did battle with Newberry, the Pro Bowl center who confidently predicted San Francisco's victory earlier in the week.

After Matt Allen's flailing pass fell incomplete -- and after a momentary scare that the officials would call pass interference against the Niners who tackled a Giants lineman attempting to catch it -- New York was whistled for having an ineligible receiver downfield, ending the wild game.

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