By a simple twist of fate and lack of major career options I happened to be driving a cab in Oakland in the fall of 1981, when the San Francisco 49ers put together their first Super Bowl season. I worked Sunday afternoons, so I listened to most of the games on the radio in my taxi, a black-and-white Ford Granada in which I picked up fares from the bars, the grocery stores, and occasionally the street corners of the Fruitvale district. The season was captivating and of course ended with a series of huge wins highlighted by the Niners-Dallas Cowboys NFC Championship remembered for "The Catch" (Joe Montana to Dwight Clark with time running out) and the Niners methodical (as I remember it) victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.
The 49ers had another playoff win on their way to the championship, beating the wild-card New York Giants at Candlestick Park, 38-24, the week before the historic and much remembered "The Catch" game. I don't remember a thing about that game, but I only say that by way of remarking on a couple of plays in later Giants-49ers playoff contests that I've never been able to get out of my memory. Both involve very bad moments for 49ers' quarterback Joe Montana.
Bad Moment No. 1 came January 4, 1987, when the teams met on the Giants' home field in the swamps of New Jersey. The first half featured one of the weirdest plays in the storied career of 49er wide receiver Jerry Rice—on his way toward the end zone with a Joe Montana pass, he fumbled the ball without being touched. The Giants recovered, then marched for a touchdown of their own—an effective 14-point turnaround. But worse was to come. Near the end of the half, Giants' nose tackle Jim Burt smashed Montana as he was releasing the ball. The blow KO'd Montana and led to an interception by linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who ran the ball in for a touchdown. Final score: 49-3. Here's the scene:
Bad Moment No. 2 also stars Montana in the role of Giants' road kill. On January 20, 1991, the Niners met the New Yorkers on the Bay's boggy shore. With 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter and the 49ers nursing a 13-9 lead, Montana brought the team to the line on third and long. He went back to pass. He looked and looked for a receiver, dodged a tackler, then began rolling to his right. Giants' defensive end Leonard Marshall, who had already been knocked down on the play, was in pursuit. He caught up with Montana just as the quarterback set and began to throw. Montana suffered a broken hand, a bruised sternum, and broken ribs, and later said it was so hard to take a breath after the hit that he thought he would die. The Giants went on to win that game, too, 15-13. Here's the play:
Today marks the eighth time the teams have met in the playoffs. The 49ers lead the series with a record of 4-3. The only time the road team won: that 1991 tilt when the Giants knocked out Montana.
For a couple other walks down memory lane, some of which include recollections that won't be so painful for the 49er Faithful, here are a couple of other reviews of the teams' history in the playoffs.