January 20, 2010

1991: Giants Dethrone Two-Time Champion 49ers for NFC Title

For most of the 1990 season, it seemed as though the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants were mirroring each other while on a collision course for supremacy in the NFC. Both teams started out with 10-0 records. A week before they were due to square off at Candlestick Park, both lost for the first time, and to division rivals in each instance – the 49ers falling 28-17 to the Rams and the Giants by 31-13 at Philadelphia. San Francisco won the ensuing matchup, 7-3.

The 49ers, under second-year Head Coach George Seifert, had won the previous two Super Bowls and looked poised to join the Packers as winners of three straight NFL titles. They ended the ’90 regular season with a league-best 14-2 record, coasting to first place in the NFC West, and defeated Washington in the Divisional playoff round. To be sure, weaknesses were beginning to show due to wear and tear as safety Ronnie Lott missed five games and RB Roger Craig limped through a sub-par season. Still, QB Joe Montana and WR Jerry Rice, who led the league with 100 pass receptions, 1502 receiving yards, and 13 touchdown catches, provided plenty of heroics on offense.

The Giants, coached by Bill Parcells, ended the regular season with several question marks. Their conservative, ball-control offense, led by QB Phil Simms, suffered only 14 turnovers. The defense, featuring LB Lawrence Taylor (pictured at bottom), was top-ranked in the NFL and also had solid performances from LB Pepper Johnson, NT Erik Howard, and veteran CB Everson Walls. However, the team lost three of its last six games and Simms and starting RB Rodney Hampton were eliminated from the postseason by injuries. To be sure, the Giants still won the NFC East with a 13-3 record, and they crushed the Bears in the Divisional playoff. But they were dependent upon unproven backup QB Jeff Hostetler, operating an offense rendered even more conservative, and 33-year-old RB Ottis Anderson (pictured at top).

There were 65,750 on hand at Candlestick Park on January 20, 1991 for the NFC Championship game. The first half ended at 6-6 with both teams booting two field goals apiece – from 47 and 35 yards by San Francisco’s Mike Cofer and 28 and 42 yards by veteran placekicker Matt Bahr (pictured at right).

The 49ers finally scored a touchdown in the third quarter as Montana connected with WR John Taylor on a 61-yard play. Bahr narrowed the margin to 13-9 with a 46-yard field goal late in the same period.

Montana was knocked out of the game with a broken finger after being sacked with under ten minutes remaining in the game. Meanwhile, the Giants utilized a fake punt that turned into a 30-yard run by LB Gary Reasons, setting up a fourth field goal by Bahr from 38 yards that made it a one-point contest.

49ers backup QB Steve Young kept the ball on the ground, throwing just one pass, and it was almost enough. But with 2:36 remaining, Lawrence Taylor recovered a fumble by Craig. It was the only turnover of the game, and a costly one. Hostetler, completing two key passes, moved the Giants 33 yards in six plays into field goal range. With time running out, Bahr kicked his fifth field goal, from 42 yards, and the Giants were the winners by a 15-13 margin.

In the defensive struggle, New York won the battle for ball control, keeping the offense on the field for 39 minutes and outrushing the 49ers, 152 yards to 39. Even with San Francisco’s superior air attack, the Giants had the upper hand in total yards with 311 to 240. Jeff Hostetler (pictured at left) performed capably, completing 15 of 27 passes for 176 yards and, most importantly, not throwing any interceptions. Ottis Anderson was the top rusher with 67 yards on 20 carries. WR Mark Ingram and TE Mark Bavaro each caught five passes, with Ingram gaining the most yards (82, to the tight end’s 54). Matt Bahr, in his first season with the Giants after nine years in Cleveland, made five of his six field goal attempts, which were crucial.

Before having to leave the game, Joe Montana completed 18 of 26 passes for 190 yards and a TD with none picked off. Thanks to the long touchdown, John Taylor had the most receiving yards with 75 on two receptions, while Jerry Rice had the most catches with 5, but for just 54 yards. The weak rushing attack was led by Roger Craig, with 26 yards on 8 attempts.

New York went on to defeat Buffalo in a closely-fought Super Bowl that was decided by one point. However, Coach Parcells left in the offseason and the Giants slumped under his successor, Ray Handley. The 49ers missed the playoffs in ’91 despite a 10-6 record, but rebounded to make the playoffs in each of the following six seasons with one Super Bowl victory mixed in.