August 17, 2017

A Backgrounder on the 49ers and Giants in the Playoffs

During the ‘80s the 49ers and Giants matched up four times in the playoffs, twice in San Francisco and then twice in the Meadowlands. Here, adapted from my e-book covering the 49ers under Bill Walsh, are summaries of these four games, followed by quick notes on the teams’ three following playoff games and a wrapup of the Giants-49ers playoff rivalry. I do not claim that looking back at these games has any predictive value for the NFC title game Sunday, but the renewal of a rivalry that goes more than 30 years back is a welcome occasion to reflect on the clashes between two of the great teams of the past few decades.

1981
In a game deeply overshadowed by the next week’s title game vs. the Cowboys, the 49ers beat the Giants, 38-24, at Candlestick. In the second quarter, a Ricky Patton 25-yard run produces a 24-7 lead for the Niners. But the Giants come back and, in the third quarter, go on a drive that puts them at the SF 11, hoping to tie the game at 24 with a touchdown. A fine defensive play by Eric Wright and following missed 21-yard field goal by the Giants’ Joe Danelo leaves the 49ers still up 24-17. A 49er touchdown on a short drive and then a second touchdown on a 20-yard Ronnie Lott interception return late in the fourth quarter seals the game.

Afterward, Giants coach Ray Perkins predicts: “Next Sunday the Cowboys will win. The Cowboys are a better football team. That’s nothing against the 49ers, but the Cowboys have been in this situation before and they’re a better football team.”

Giants linebacker Harry Carson: “During the week you only have time to work on so many things. But the 49er passing game is so complex, so sophisticated, there just isn’t time to work on everything that they might use against you.”

49ers tight end Charle Young: “Montana is a winner. I can see it in his eyes.”

1984
As in the 1981 playoffs, the 49ers start their trip to the Super Bowl at home, playing the Giants. Excellent defense and competent but not memorable offense gives the 49ers a 21-10 win. There is not a lot of interesting detail to this game, which in retrospect was a sign that the Giants, who intercept Joe Montana twice, including a 14-yard Harry Carson return for the team’s one touchdown, were ready to handle the 49ers’ complicated offense.

Bill Walsh: “The Giants are definitely a team of the future.”

Joe Montana: “I expected more of Lawrence Taylor coming. I got enough of him, but I expected a lot more.”

1985
The Giants, playing at the Meadowlands, swarm the 49ers for a 17-3 win in the wild card round. The 49ers come into the game banged up from accumulated injuries to Montana, Dwight Clark, Wendell Tyler, and others. An interception of Montana by Terry Kinard sets up one Giants touchdown, and a second touchdown drive gives the Giants more than enough points. Although the 49ers get into Giants territory repeatedly, stout defense and drops by San Francisco receivers prevent the drives from coming to much. A crucial second-quarter, 15-play 49er drive ends in a 21-yard field goal instead of a touchdown.

The Giants get a superb 174 rushing yards, 141 of them from Joe Morris, and put a lot of pressure on Montana, while not allowing him any deep completions.

Lawrence Taylor: “One thing that I think intimidated the 49ers was that long (15-play) drive. They scored three points, and we got three penalties. They were aggressive penalties. We’d get one, and we acted like we didn’t care as long as we were hitting somebody. I think it was enough (for the 49ers) to say, ‘Hey, these guys are crazy.’”

1986
Back in the Meadowlands, the Giants annihilate the 49ers in a 49-3 win. Jerry Rice starts the game with probably his most humiliating play: after catching a slant-in throw from Montana, Rice starts running in the clear, but at the Giant 27, he simply loses the ball from his hands, and Giants strong safety Kenny Hill falls on it in the end zone for a touchback. The Giants respond with an 80-yard drive to go up 7-0, and the second quarter features a midfield interception by the Giants’ Herb Welch to set up Joe Morris for a 45-yard touchdown run, a 57-yard touchdown drive late in the quarter, and a 34-yard Lawrence Taylor interception return for another score just before halftime. On that Taylor play, a frightening hit from future 49er Jim Burt takes Montana out of the game with a concussion. It’s 28-3 at the half, and the rout is really on.

The Giants add three more touchdowns in the third quarter, and so the fourth quarter’s just a matter of running out the clock for both teams. It’s the third-biggest blowout in the history of the NFL playoffs, and the Giants are on their way to a Super Bowl victory.

Rice on his fumble: “I wanted to keep on running into the locker room.”
Lawrence Taylor said that if Rice had scored that “would have made it 49-10.”

Walsh: “We were shattered by a great team. The Giants played a great game. Physically, they just shattered us.”

Giants quarterback Phil Simms: “We were fortunate that we caught them in a few things today, caught them in some blitzes and we made the plays. People say we don’t have good wideouts, but put them across the field and you can’t cover them one-on-one.”

1990, 1993, 2002
After the 1990 season, the Giants came into Candlestick for the NFC title game and won, 15-13, in the most memorable game these two teams have had in the playoffs. A late-game Roger Craig fumble set up Jeff Hostetler to lead about a 45-yard drive ending in a 42-yard Matt Bahr field goal for the win. This game signaled the end of the Montana-led 49ers, as the quest for three titles in a row ended with Montana devastated by a fourth-quarter Leonard Marshall hit, and Craig and Ronnie Lott playing their last game in San Francisco. In 1993, the 49ers to some extent paid the Giants back for 1986 by beating them 44-3 in the division round, a game that featured five Ricky Watters touchdowns. But the 49ers promptly lost their second NFC title game in a row to the Cowboys. And then, after the 2002 season, there was the memorable 39-38 49ers victory in the wild card round, with San Francisco overcoming a 38–14 deficit by scoring 25 points in the second half. A last-minute Giants drive ended with a botched field goal snap and desperation heave to the end zone that fell short.

So in sum, the seven playoff matchups have the 49ers winning four games, the Giants winning three. Gauged by points, the 49ers lead, 161 to 156; the Giants have beaten the 49ers twice on the way to Super Bowl victories, and the 49ers have beaten the Giants twice on the way to Super Bowl victories.

Book Review: The Catch

The play shouldn’t have worked. Every time Joe Montana and Dwight Clark ran the Sprint Wide Option  in practice, they could not convert. But it only needed to work one time. That one time became one of the most famous plays in NFL history. In an instant, the 49ers changed their fortunes forever. The Cowboys had to wait a decade to rediscover theirs.

Read “The Catch” by Gary Myers because:

1. Not too long before Montana threw the ball up in the sky, nobody believed he or Clark would make any sort of impact on the football field. Today “The Catch” is one of the first football highlights that comes to mind.

Dallas could have had Joe Montana in 1979. Months before the draft, Montana toppled Houston by leading a 22-point, 4th quarter comeback in the Cotton Bowl. Tom Landry liked him, but he didn’t really like him. “If we take him, I’ll probably cut him in training camp,” the Hall of Fame coach said. Nevermind that Montana was the highest player on the ‘Boys board, and since when did Dallas not take the best available? (10, Catch)

The phone call Dwight Clark got wasn’t even for him. Bill Walsh called to see Clark’s roommate work out. It just so happened that Steve Fuller wasn’t ready, and Walsh did not want to be kept waiting. He watched Clark work out instead. Leading up to the draft, Walsh kept hearing that Clark would go undrafted. Selecting him would be a waste. Walsh listened for a while, but he eventually went against his advisors. Montana and Clark, the two afterthoughts, were destined to be forever remembered together.

2. You might as well be in the backfield during the fateful drive, thanks to Myers’ narration.

Montana’s end zone heave to Clark was exactly what every boy thinks about before he goes to bed. In San Francisco’s version, the Niners found themselves trailing by one point on the six-yard line with 58 seconds on the clock. “[Montana] was the calmest in the huddle when he should have been the most nervous,” Clark said. “The moment was not too big for him.” (216)

The Sprint Wide Option play call from Walsh never worked in practice. Heck, Clark wasn’t even Montana’s first choice. The ball was supposed to go to Freddie Solomon. That’s how it was supposed to go in the 1982 NFC Championship Game too. Instead, as the make-or-break play unfolded, Solomon slipped. Montana was well aware of Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Larry Bethea and D.D. Lewis coming fast and furious toward him. Clark couldn’t see Montana, but the QB kept his eye on the receiver the whole time. All he could do was throw it up, wait for the beating and leave it to the crowd to tell him whether Clark made the grab.

3. Bill Walsh and Tom Landry are two legends in their own right and central to this story.

Bill Walsh was 47 when Eddie DeBartolo Jr. hired him. Walsh looked like he was 57, so he was all-too aware that the pressure was on. He didn’t start well (8-24 first two seasons.) Initially Walsh didn’t know whether to yell, bully or plead. Apparently he learned, as he’s been likened to Vince Lombardi.

Walsh became a players’ favorite. Landry didn’t allow himself to have those sorts of relationships, though the Cowboys head man made sure to let his players know he cared about them. Landry was stoic and didn’t need words to get his point across. He was old-school, Myers wrote. That, and “The Catch” were two significant reasons why Landry was relieved of his duties. Landry went from feared to misunderstood by new-school players.

Sadly, both Landry and Walsh died of leukemia. What a legacy they left, forever linked by “The Catch.”

Sam Miller is the founder of Sam’s Dream Blog.  A graduate of the University of Illinois, he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.