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

grave.

Top playoff comebacks

  • 32: Buffalo vs. Houston, Jan. 3, 1993, AFC wild card (trailed

    35-3, won 41-38, OT)

  • 24: San Francisco vs. NY Giants, Jan. 5, 2003, NFC wild card

    (trailed 38-14, won 39-38)

  • 20: Detroit vs. San Francisco, Dec. 22, 1957, NFL divisional

    playoff (trailed 27-7, won 31-27)

  • 18: Dallas vs. San Francisco, Dec. 23, 1972, NFC divisional

    playoff (trailed 21-3, won 30-28)

  • 18: Miami vs. Cleveland, Jan. 4, 1985, AFC divisional playoff

    (trailed 21-3, won 24-21)

  • 17: Pittsburgh vs. Cleveland, Jan. 5, 2003, AFC wild card playoff

    (trailed 24-7, won 36-33)

    -- The Associated Press

  • 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

    victory.

    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

    tension.

    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

    Owens.

    "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.''

    Where will Terrell Owens be catching passes in 2004? Stay tuned.
    Where will Terrell Owens be catching passes in 2004? Stay tuned.

    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

    handle.

    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

    game.''

    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.