By GREG BEACHAM, AP Sports Writer
January 6, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Until Terrell Owens spoke up, the San Francisco 49ers were down and sinking fast.
``Are we pretenders or contenders?'' Owens asked. ``We're either going to pretend, or we're going to contend. It's time to decide. ... We have a lot of weapons. We have to play with poise. Time is on our side.''
The first halftime speech ever by the enigmatic star receiver was a sign of even more surprising things to come for San Francisco -- and when Candlestick Park erupted as time expired, nothing seemed impossible for a team that had just made the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.
With Owens and Jeff Garcia giving performances worthy of their franchise's illustrious history, the 49ers mounted a stunning rally from a 24-point deficit for a 39-38 victory over the New York Giants in a wild-card game Sunday.
``It just makes me believe that we can do anything, go anywhere, beat anybody,'' Garcia said.
But the 49ers also got help from a veteran lineman whose final mistake doomed the Giants to a historic collapse. After Garcia hit Tai Streets with a 13-yard touchdown pass with a minute left, New York's Trey Junkin made a terrible snap on what would have been a 41-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.
Nothing in their inconsistent season, or in their first 40 minutes against Giants, suggested the 49ers were capable of such feats -- even to the men who did it.
``It's just hard to fathom right now,'' said Garcia, who got his first playoff victory. ``I can't even grasp my emotions. This is the most calm I've ever felt, just trying to soak it all in.''
The rally was the second biggest in playoff history. Only Buffalo's 32-point comeback in a 41-38 victory over Houston in January 1993 was bigger.
The 49ers trailed 38-14 with four 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.
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.
Owens caught TD passes of 76 and 26 yards, finishing with nine catches for 177 yards. Garcia went 27-of-44 for 331 yards and three TDs while also rushing for 60 yards, including a 14-yard score on the first play of the fourth quarter.
After Garcia drove the 49ers 68 yards in just over two minutes for Streets' score, Collins got New York to the San Francisco 23 with 6 seconds left. But Junkin, a 41-year-old journeyman signed earlier in the week, made a low snap that Matt Allen couldn't handle.
Allen threw a desperate pass that fell incomplete. However, it was only third down and he might have been able to throw the ball out of bounds, perhaps stopping the clock in time and giving the Giants another chance to kick the field goal. Because he had rolled out of the pocket he would not have been called for intentional grounding.
Allen could not have immediately spiked the ball to give the Giants another chance because it was a long snap. The only time a player can spike the ball is when he takes the snap from under center, said Mike Pereira, the NFL supervisor of officials.
After New York was penalized for illegal men downfield on the play, the 49ers leaped, sprinted and collapsed onto the field in a raucous celebration before an exhausted Candlestick crowd.
``I tried to make the perfect snap instead of a good snap. You can't do that,'' Junkin said. ``This is something I've done for 32 years, but not anymore.''
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.
``This is about the worst loss I have ever felt in my entire life,'' said Giants coach Jim Fassel, whose team made the playoffs with four straight victories. ``I'm not going to get over this one for a while.''
Though New York's collapsing defense should bear most of the blame, the Giants (10-7) finally were undone by Junkin. He put in his retirement papers last month, but was signed to replace injured Dan O'Leary.
Junkin made a mediocre snap on Matt Bryant's 42-yard miss with 3:01 left, and on the final play, Junkin's snap was low and away. Allen never had a chance to set it up for Bryant.
Collins was 29-of-43 for 342 yards and four touchdowns, 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.
``You never think you have it won until there's no time on the clock,'' Collins said. ``I didn't sense on the sidelines that we thought we had it, and we just needed to coast the rest of the game.''
The 49ers rallied with a purpose and poise that they've rarely shown this season, when they won 10 games but didn't feel completely happy about any of them. Owens caught a TD pass late in the third quarter to start the rally, and he made big catches on every drive -- right up to the final minutes, when Garcia found Streets in the left corner for a score.
Owens and New York safety Shaun Williams then got offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after the 49ers' failed 2-point conversion attempt. Williams was ejected for throwing a punch at Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry.
Jeremy Shockey, the Giants' brash rookie tight end, made seven catches for 68 yards. But he dropped a potential TD pass late in the third quarter, forcing New York to kick a field goal.
The Giants never scored again -- and San Francisco rolled into the conferencesemifinals.
Owens threw a 25-yard pass to Streets in the second quarter, setting up Kevan Barlow's 1-yard TD plunge. Owens hadn't thrown a pass all season, but the 49ers worked on the play in practice earlier in the week. ... Toomer tied an NFL playoff record with his three TD catches. ... San Francisco starting CBJason Webster missed the game with a sprained ankle.
Updated on Monday, Jan 6, 2003 11:32 am, EST
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