November 25, 2010

1990: Division Rivals Knock Giants & 49ers From Ranks of Unbeaten

Ten games into the 1990 NFL season, both the defending-champion San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants were sporting perfect 10-0 records. With the teams scheduled to meet in San Francisco the next week, speculation was rampant that it could be a showdown of unbeaten teams for supremacy in the NFC. But first they each had to face fierce division rivals on November 25.

In the case of the Giants, coached by Bill Parcells, it meant traveling to Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium to take on Buddy Ryan’s Eagles. The Giants had been successful with a conservative offense that rarely turned the ball over, in combination with a solid defense. The Eagles played in the style of the brash Ryan, aggressive on defense while dependent upon the flashy skills of QB Randall Cunningham (pictured above) on offense. They had gotten off to a slow start in ’90, going 1-3 to begin the season (including an opening-game loss to New York at Giants Stadium), but had won their last four games prior to hosting the Giants and were 6-4 overall.

The first half was closely fought. New York scored initially on a 15-yard pass from QB Phil Simms to WR Mark Ingram and the Eagles responded as Cunningham connected with WR Fred Barnett for a 49-yard TD. In the second quarter, Cunningham capped a drive of over nine minutes by leaping into the end zone for a touchdown from a yard out. TE Mark Bavaro caught a four-yard scoring pass from Simms, but the extra point was missed and the Eagles led by the slender margin of 14-13 at halftime.

Roger Ruzek kicked a 39-yard field goal to extend Philadelphia’s lead to 17-13 in the third quarter, but in a span of 22 seconds in the fourth quarter the Eagles essentially put the game away. First, Cunningham passed to WR Calvin Williams for a six-yard touchdown. Then, LB Seth Joyner deflected a Simms pass that was intercepted by MLB Byron Evans, who ran untouched for a 23-yard TD. That provided the final score of 31-13 as the Eagles toppled the Giants.

The Eagles controlled the ball for over 38 minutes and rolled up the most yards against the Giants thus far with 405. The Giants, who typically ran the ball 60 percent of the time, were forced to throw 40 passes. Phil Simms, who had only been intercepted twice in the previous ten games, was picked off twice by the Eagles and completed only 17 of his passes.

Randall Cunningham passed for 229 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, and ran for 66 yards on 9 carries with a TD. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts. RB Keith Byars caught 8 passes for 128 yards.

It was the first regular season loss for the Giants in 14 games dating back to December 1989, and the Eagles had beaten them then. It also delayed the Giants from clinching the NFC East title.

Meanwhile, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the 49ers ran into trouble against the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams, under Head Coach John Robinson, were having a poor season and came into the game at 3-7 and hardly seemed a match for the two-time defending league champions that had won a record-tying 18 straight games. Under Head Coach George Seifert, the 49ers were known for their passing offense, led by QB Joe Montana and WR Jerry Rice.

However, in the wind and rain at Candlestick Park, the Rams forced four turnovers in the first half and took a 21-7 lead. RB Cleveland Gary accounted for the first two TDs of the game, first on a 22-yard option pass from FB Buford McGee and then on a 10-yard run in the second quarter. The 49ers scored on a five-yard pass from Montana to WR John Taylor, but McGee ran for a six-yard touchdown to provide the 14-point margin at the half.

It appeared that the 49ers might pull off a successful comeback in the third quarter. Montana threw a screen pass to RB Harry Sydney that was good for a 23-yard touchdown. Mike Cofer booted a 42-yard field goal before the period was over that pulled the Niners to within 21-17.

But on San Francisco’s next possession, Montana was intercepted by Rams SS Vince Newsome and LA went 90 yards in 17 plays to score a game-clinching touchdown as Gary ran in from a yard out. The final score was 28-17.

The Rams outgained the 49ers, 350 yards to 291, and turned the ball over twice, as compared to a total of six times by the Niners. Joe Montana threw for 235 yards and two touchdowns, but was intercepted three times. Jerry Rice caught 7 passes for 72 yards, but gave up one of the fumbles.

Meanwhile, WR Willie “Flipper” Anderson caught 8 passes for 149 yards and Cleveland Gary (pictured at left) ran for 68 yards on 24 carries and caught three passes for 27 yards while scoring three touchdowns. QB Jim Everett was successful on 16 of 27 passes for 224 yards with one picked off.

The 49ers won the showdown against the Giants the next week, stripped of the glamour of being a battle of unbeatens, by a low score of 7-3. San Francisco lost once more in the regular season to finish atop the NFC West at 14-2. New York ended up winning the NFC East at 13-3. The two teams met in the NFC Championship game, where the Giants prevailed and went on to win the Super Bowl over Buffalo.

The Eagles lost their next two games after upsetting the Giants, and ended up in second place in the NFC East at 10-6. They qualified for the playoffs as a wild card team, but lost to the Redskins in the first round, costing Ryan his job. For the Rams, the upset of the 49ers was the high point of an otherwise dismal year. They defeated the Browns the next week, but lost their last four games to finish at 5-11 for third place in the NFC West.