Garcia, 49ers erase 24-point deficit

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Nobody thought the San Francisco 49ers had
it in them. Nobody imagined their 24-point hole was anything but a

Nothing in their inconsistent season, or in their first 40
minutes against the New York Giants, suggested the Niners were
capable of the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.

But as the Giants collapsed around them, Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens measured up to their franchise's greats in one of the most
exciting episodes in the 49ers' long playoff history.

Garcia hit Tai Streets with a 13-yard touchdown pass with 1
minute left, and the Giants botched the snap on a 41-yard
field-goal attempt as time expired Sunday in San Francisco's 39-38

Things got ugly late, as Owens and New York safety Shaun
Williams got offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, and
Williams was ejected for throwing a punch at Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry.

Garcia and Owens led the way for the 49ers, though Giants long
snapper Trey Junkin also helped out with two terrible snaps in a
monumental momentum shift that wrung every drop of emotion out of a
sellout crowd at Candlestick Park.

"As long as you live, you might never see a game better than
that,'' said 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, whose job might have been
saved. "It's kind of hard to remember everything right now, but I
remember how it ended.''

The 49ers' rally was the biggest in NFC playoff history. Only
Buffalo's 32-point comeback in a 41-38 victory over Houston in
January 1993 was bigger.

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

The 49ers (11-6) trailed 38-14 with 4 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

"It's one of those things where you're in the park playing with
your buddies,'' said Garcia, who got his first playoff victory.
"You try to emulate what the great ones do, what Joe Montana and
Steve Young did. Now I'm that guy. Maybe some kid wants to be Jeff Garcia. That's an awesome feeling.''

Garcia was incredible, but Owens was just as good. He caught TD
passes of 76 and 26 yards, and inspired his teammates to victory
with fiery speeches at halftime and in the fourth-quarter huddles --
a remarkable development for a Pro Bowl player who has few close
friends on the team.

"I asked everybody who could make plays,'' Owens said. "I told
them I could. Other guys chimed in. They could. I said, 'We have a
lot of weapons. We have to play with poise. Time is on our side.'''

Garcia went 27-of-44 for 331 yards and three TDs. He also rushed
for 60 yards, including a 14-yard score on the first play of the
fourth quarter. Two of Garcia's TD throws went to Owens, who had
nine catches for 177 yards -- most of them while dragging defenders
or sprinting past them after catches.

After Garcia drove the Niners 68 yards in just over 2 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

Allen threw a desperate pass that fell incomplete, although it
was only third down and he might have been able to spike the ball
and given the Giants another shot at a field goal.

After New York was penalized for illegal men downfield on the
play, the Niners 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. If you can't count on me at the end of the game, that's it, I'm done.

"I cost 58 guys a chance to go to the Super Bowl. I'd give anything in the world, except my family at this point, right now to still be retired."

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 for the debacle, 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.

"I was watching all these bad snaps and wondering: 'How many
games are you going to lose over a snap?' It was frustrating,''
Junkin said earlier this week.

On the final play, Junkin's snap was low and away. Allen never
had a chance to set it up for Matt 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.

But the Niners rallied with a purpose and poise that they've
rarely shown this season. Owens caught a TD pass late in the third
quarter to start the rally, and made big catches on every drive --
right up to the final minutes, when Garcia found Streets in the
left corner for a score.

"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

Jeremy Shockey, the Giants' brash rookie tight end, taunted the
49ers' sideline after just his second reception -- and threw ice
water in the direction of heckling fans in a moment of frustration
on the New York sideline.

But Shockey, who had seven catches for 68 yards, 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 conference semifinals.

The final seconds were exhausting and confusing. With 3:01 left,
Bryant -- kicking out of a poor hold, thanks to another poor snap by
Junkin -- badly missed a 42-yard field goal on fourth-and-1.

Garcia took over, converting two straight third downs for the
NFL leaders in that category. Tight end Eric Johnson caught a
25-yard pass to the New York 25, and Garcia scrambled 12 yards to
set up his scoring pass to Streets.

Game notes
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 Niners worked on the play in
practice earlier in the week. ... Toomer tied an NFL playoff record
with his three TD catches. ... Niners starting CB Jason Webster
missed the game with a sprained ankle.