Saturday, September 24, 2016

Anniversary of a Great Game!

I originally published this on September 2, 2015, for the 24th anniversary of this game, but really meant to be more patient and save it for the 25th anniversary. However, I forgot about this anniversary when it came earlier this month - over three weeks ago, in fact!

Still, I wanted to recognize it, because it was one of the games that made me happiest as a Giants fan. You see, the Giants were the defending champions at that point, coming off a truly spectacular season. They had capped that with a second Super Bowl championship in five years, and barely got past the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. To qualify for that Super Bowl, though, the Giants had to travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers, who were aiming for what could have been a third straight Super Bowl title themselves. In the most intense NFL game that I ever saw, the Giants and 49ers showed their hard-hitting style, and the intensity was palpable. In the end, fittingly, it came down to the last play -  a field goal attempt to win it by Matt Bahr, New York's placekicker. When the ball sailed through the uprights, the Giants had managed to do what nobody believed they could, and what nobody else had managed to do in almost three years, and eliminate the 49ers. In the process, they ended a dynasty - one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history!

Roughly seven months and a half later, the Giants opened their title defense at home against - who else? - the San Francisco 49ers. At that time, it seemed like the Giants-49ers rivalry was the best one that the NFL had seen in years. A few years later, it would be Dallas and San Francisco, but at that point in time, it was those two teams. And the game was similar - almost eerily similar in some respects - to that epic NFC Championship Game that I just described. There were more mistakes made by both teams, and obviously, not nearly as much was at stake. 

Still, it felt to me that if the Giants wanted to have an chance at a repeat, they absolutely needed to win this game. So, when the game came down to another Matt Bahr field goal with mere seconds left in the game (although technically, it was not the last play), it really did feel incredibly reminiscent of the title run earlier that year. Once again, Bahr's kick sailed through the uprights, and the old Giants Stadium went wild!

Again, I am a Giants fan, and just felt elated. It felt like a big thing that you hold your breath for, and only when it's done, you can exhale again. This, more than any other game, mattered for the 1991 Giants. This was the one team that I personally wanted to see them beat.

Of course, the dreams of another championship faded fast. Roughly about six days, until the G-Men showed up in Week Two for what proved to be a letdown, as they played a lackluster game against a mediocre Rams team, and lost at home. If it did not end precisely after that game, then surely by week three, when New York once again lost a tight game at Chicago, there was a feeling that this season was not like the previous one. 

Before long, the entire season was basically out of control. The Giants were inconsistent, winning that home opener against what appeared to be a great team, then losing to a team that was not great at all. They were 3-4 before they finally earned their first real win streak of the season. Then, the Giants managed to win four of the next five games, and looked to have a chance at least to qualify for the postseason following an electrifying road win at Tampa Bay, in the same stadium where they had won their second Super Bowl earlier in the year. Yet, the next week, they went to Cincinnati to play the 1-11 Bengals, who very well may have been the worst team in the league at that point. The Giants blew a fourth quarter lead and the game, and whatever dim hopes had existed for a playoff run were over. That was the first of three straight losses, and a regular season finale win against playoff-bound Houston was small consolation for what felt like a season of missed opportunities. 

Still, despite what proved to be an otherwise mostly forgettable season, there was a magical feel after the win against San Francisco in the opening game of the season that felt almost as intense and important as a playoff win, at least at the time. It was an exciting game between two of the best teams of the era, and I enjoyed it enough back then to recognize it now. Here is what I wrote about it last year:

Today marks the 24th anniversary of a very memorable game that opened up the 1991 Monday Night Football season. It featured the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants hosting the San Francisco 49ers. Combined, the two teams had won four of the previous five Super Bowls, including three straight heading into that season.

That alone was enough to make this particular match-up intriguing. But the two teams also had a very strong rivalry at that point. I would argue that it might have been just a notch below the epic rivalries between the Cowboys and 49ers later on in the decade, or like the rivalry between the Patriots and Colts in the 2000's. That was how good the rivalry was, and how solid these two teams were. It was not that there was a lack of other teams that were breaking through. Chicago and Washington had won Super Bowls in recent years at that point, as well. But the Bears, despite that one awesome and incredibly dominant season, had never followed up with something remotely as impressive, and Washington seemed to find ways to win championships when other teams, particularly the Giants and 49ers, were struggling through miserable seasons, or at least disappointing losses. Combined, Washington and Chicago eliminated the 49ers from the playoffs once in the 80's and early 90's, while they got eliminated by the 49ers a total of five times during that era.

It was different with the New York Giants, who managed to be the only team in the 80's to repeatedly knock off that decade's best team, the 49ers. Yet, the 49ers had some impressive wins against the Giants during that era as well, which made it a true rivalry.

The two teams first met in the playoffs following the 1981 season. Both franchises had suffered through years of losing - the Giants in particular had failed to make it to the playoffs for 18 consecutive years! But the Giants made it that season, beating the defending NFC Champion Eagles at Philadelphia, then going off to meet the top-seeded 49ers in San Francisco. The Giants did some impressive things, but they never seriously challenged the 'Niners on that day. San Francisco would next play that epic NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys, culminating in "The Catch" that handed the 49ers an amazing victory, and earned their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. They would defeated the Cincinnati Bengals for their first title ever.

San Francisco would host the Giants in the playoffs again following the 1984 season, once again in the Divisional round. And once again, while New York did some impressive things, they ultimately could not stand up to everything the then 15-1 49ers did. San Fransisco would go on to shut out the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship, en route to their second title in four seasons, beating Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins handily in the big game.

The next season, the two teams would meet again in the playoffs, this time at Giants Stadium. The Giants managed to do more than just a few things right this time around, shutting down the 'Niners explosive offense en route to a convincing 17-3 victory. Still, they would lose the next week to the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears, who trampled on New York's championship dreams in a 21-0 route. Amazingly, that was the closest that any playoff team would get to beating the Bears that year.

Finally, the Giants themselves rose to championship form in 1986. They enjoyed a dominant 14-2 regular season mark, with one of their most impressive wins coming on Monday Night Football in a showdown against San Francisco. Coming from 17-0 down, the Giants rallied after a huge play by Mark Bavaro, who dragged numerous 49ers defenders to pick up a first down. The Giants came back to win that one, 21-17. The two teams met again in the NFC Divisional playoffs, with the Giants crushing San Fran, 49-3. They would shut out Washington in the NFC Championship, then whipped Denver to capture the franchise's first Super Bowl championship in history.

Technically, the two teams met in 1987, although both teams had replacement players during the players strike. The 49ers won that one easily, although it was not really the two teams that everybody identified as the Giants and 49ers. But they would meet again in 1988, at Giants Stadium, in another legendary game. San Francisco seemed to be just edging the Giants out all game, until Phil Simms orchestrated what appeared to be a game winning touchdown drive very late in the 4th quarter, putting the Giants ahead, 17-13, for an apparent come from behind win. But in the games final seconds, Joe Montana found Jerry Rice very deep as two Giants defenders crashed into one another, and Rice ran in for the score to stun the Giants and their fans, earning an amazing 20-17 win. This game proved huge for both teams, as they both finished the season at 10-6. But for the Giants, 10-6 meant that they missed the playoffs that season, and in light of that, the loss to the 49ers seems huge. For San Francisco that season, 10-6 was good enough for a division title and the second seed in the playoffs. They would beat Minnesota at home, then embarrass Chicago on the road in the NFC Title game, before just edging out the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, with Montana leading the 49ers on what has come to be known as "The Drive" to lead San Fran past the Bengals in what was the first truly exciting end to a Super Bowl to that point. The Super Bowl victory earned the 49ers "Team of the Decade" honors.

But if there was any lingering doubts that San Francisco was the best team of the eighties, their dominance during the 1989 season erased these. The 49ers dominated, earning a 14-2 mark, and beating the Giants in a tight Monday Night Football showdown along the way. New York earned a 12-4 mark that season, second best in the league to the 49ers. But they were eliminated in the Divisional round by the Los Angeles Rams. The 49ers, in the meantime, crushed everyone in their way, stomping on he Vikings again, then humiliating the Rams, before scoring an unprecedentedly lopsided victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

That led to the 1990 season, and the peak of the already impressive rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants. They met twice that season, culminating in the epic NFC Championship Game struggle that still is remembered as one of the most physical and intense games in NFL history!

Yes, I have written plenty about the Giants amazing victory on the road in the NFC Championship Game at San Francisco on January 20, 1991.

The thing about the 49ers was that they really were like the perfect adversary, or even enemy. This was not only the team that had won the previous two Super Bowls (and the most recent one at the time by the widest margin even of 45 points), but they had begun celebrating very early in Super Bowl XXIV, and holding up three fingers, as kind of a promise to achieve the rare "three-peat!" They had reason to be very confident, too. That was a great team, a very well-disciplined team, and they had earned "Team of the Decade" honors with the back-to-back championships in the 1988 and 1989 seasons.

Now, in 1990, they had started the season off in incredible fashion, with a tight road victory against the New Orleans Saints to open the season up, then racing out to an undefeated, franchise best 10-0 start. Simply put, they looked virtually unbeatable, and most people had them pegged as the eventual Super Bowl champions again.

The thing was, the Giants were keeping them company. With shades of the greatness that New York had shown during the 1986 season, when they had risen to Super Bowl championship form themselves, the Giants also sprinted out to a 10-0 unbeaten start, which was a franchise record for New York as well.

And the two teams were slated to meet in two weeks later, with everyone assuming that they would both be 11-0 heading into that game, and that it would be a historically important showdown between two of the best teams ever.

However, they both lost the week before to divisional opponents, and had matching records of 10-1 instead.

it was still an intense game. It was called by some "The Clash of the Titans," and many expected fireworks on that night.

What they got instead was a defensive struggle. A low-scoring game, with defense dictating play for both teams.

Ultimately, the 49ers won that one, 7-3. The Giants had their chances. They could have gotten a safer field goal in the fourth quarter to close to within a point, but Parcells gambled, as he was known to do. This time, he lost, and the Giants failed to convert. This came into play big time towards the end, when the Giants were in scoring position. Had they only needed a field goal, they very well might have won. But they needed a touchdown instead, and when they failed to convert, San Francisco preserved the 7-3 victory, in what was the lowest scoring contest of the 1990 season.

The Championship Game was also low-scoring, but that was even more intense with the physicality, particularly from both defenses. It was a game of jarring hits, and both quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Jeff Hostetler, suffered some cringe worthy injuries with hits received. Hostetler got up and came back into the game. Joe Montana did not, and his career, in fact, never was the same after that.

It was also a game that was very even, and became sort of a chess match between the coaches. This was not to be a blowout for either side, and both teams were playing for the end game. Despite it being a low-scoring affair, it had a bit of that feel of a game where the last team with the ball winds up winning. In fact, that was exactly what happened.

It is a testament to the Giants and their defense that, despite not scoring a single touchdown in either meeting against San Francisco during the 1990-91 season, they kept both games close, and managed to win the more important of the two meetings. That was behind Matt Bahr's five field goals (out of six attempts), earning the 15-13 win. And although that might sound boring, it most certainly was not. That game was absolutely filled with excitement and great plays, such as the touchdown pass from Montana to John Taylor to give San Francisco a 13-6 lead, and bring the 'Niners faithful to their feet, exploding with excitement as their team seemed to finally break through. But the Giants kept on pounding away, and closed in with another field goal. Parcells then called a very memorable fake punt that caught the 49ers unawares, as Gary Reasons took the ball and easily picked up enough for the first down. The Giants would get another field goal, making it a 1-point game.

Very late in the game, as the 49ers seemed on the verge of running out the clock on the Giants after an impressive first down to Brent Jones, Eric Howard of the Giants hit 49ers running back Roger Craig right where he was holding the ball, forcing it to pop out. Up to that point, this was threatening to be the first postseason game in NFL history without a turnover. But Lawrence Taylor picked it up, giving the Giants the ball with very little time remaining, and another chance - a last chance - to finally beat the 49ers in San Francisco this season.

The 49ers defended quite well, but the Giants steadily plugged away, marching down the field with their physical offense, and got themselves into field goal position. They allowed the clock to run down to the final seconds, to give themselves another Matt Bahr field goal attempt. If the kick went through the uprights, the Giants would win, and would earn themselves a trip to Tampa to meet Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV. If the kicked was no good, then time would have run out on them, and the 'Niners would be in their third straight Super Bowl.

Bahr's kick sailed through the uprights, and the Giants celebrated a huge victory!

The next weekend, in Super Bowl XXV, there were plenty more huge and memorable plays, as two worthy opponents met. The Bills seemed on the verge of blowing out the Giants at some point in the first half, but the Giants always managed to fight their way back and pull the score much closer. Eventually, in another very physical game with big hits and chess matches between the coaches, the Giants managed to hold off Buffalo to take a 20-19 lead late in the fourth quarter. But Buffalo had the ball and, similarly to the Giants the previous week, had the chance to position themselves for a field goal. With just eight seconds left on the clock, the Bills had a 47-yard field goal attempt, and much like the Giants had the week before against San Francisco, a made field goal here would win it for Buffalo, and a miss would hand the Giants the Super Bowl victory. It was one of the most memorable moments in Super Bowl history. The kick sailed wide right by around two feet, and the Giants were champions once again.

All of that led to the big showdown between these two storied franchises to open up the 1991 season on Monday Night Football. It was about as big a showdown on opening weekend as you could get.

What was at stake? For both teams, this was an opportunity to defeat their biggest rivals, and with a win, go ahead of half of the rest of the league with a hard-earned victory. For the loser, a bad way to start the season, with a nationally televised loss. To make the game even more compelling, the 49ers entered this game with an NFL record 20-consecutive road game win streak, which still stands as an NFL record. For the defending champion Giants, this would be a chance to start off their title defense in the best way possible, against their biggest rivals. It would also signal that these 1991 Giants were not going to suffer the same fate as the previous time that the Giants had a title defense season in 1987, which spiraled out of control early with an 0-5 start (although three of those games, again, were with replacement players) en route to a 6-9 season that saw them finish in last place in the NFC East.

Despite the win, the Giants were not nearly good enough in 1991 to repeat as champions. They won the battle against San Francisco, and for one week at least, Giants fans could rejoice at the huge win against their best opponent. But as it turned out, neither the Giants nor the 49ers would even so much as qualify for the playoffs that season. The championship dreams for Giants fans like myself began to be washed away when the Giants suffered a let down the following weekend, at home against the Rams. When this was followed up by a loss at Chicago, everyone knew that any real hopes of a repeat were basically done. These were not the same Giants as the season before. In fact, the Giants would never quite look the same again. The Bill Parcells era was over for the Giants, and so to were those championship runs. It would take an entirely different era, with Tom Coughlin at the helm as coach, and Eli Manning at quarterback, for the G-Men to once again become a championship team.

At that time, however, nobody could know that neither team would even be remotely close to the stellar level of play that both teams had exhibited the season before. Sure, there was a lot more sloppiness in this contest than either team had shown during the two meetings in 1990, but that could be forgiven, since this was opening day. What seemed apparent was that this was another installment of the best rivalry that the NFL had going at that point, and it was another memorable match before a nationally televised audience. For Giants fans like myself, it proved to be one final opportunity to get really excited about the prospects for another championship. Beating the 49ers again still seemed like such a huge deal at that time, that it felt like the Giants had overcome possibly their biggest hurdle during the regular season towards another title run. After all, given the success of winning seasons and division titles and championship runs that fans from both teams had come to expect by that point, there was nothing to indicate that both teams had dropped off significantly by the 1991 season.

But as it turned out, it was not a sign of things to come. The Giants would have an up and down season, until the climax late in the season, when they returned to Tampa, to the same stadium where they had beaten the Bills for the championship. Hostetler got injured, and Simms stepped in and orchestrated a late touchdown drive to win, and the Giants improved to 7-5, with hopes for the playoffs still very much alive. Those hopes were quickly extinguished when they would lose to the 1-11 Bengals the following week, and New York finished with an 8-8 record, well out of the playoffs. The 49ers struggled through much of the season, and stood at 4-6, before they caught fire and won their final six games. But this too was not enough, as the Saints won the division, and the Atlanta Falcons earned a playoff spot, having swept the 49ers. Both teams and their fans would watch the playoffs go on without them.

Indeed, both teams were very different than they had been the season before. Hostetler was the starting quarterback for the Giants, and not Simms. That was a first, as Simms had started for the better part of a decade by then. And the 49ers also had Young starting, instead of Montana. Roger Craig was gone, and so was Ronnie Lott. Parcells was gone for the Giants, although he would be head coach again with the New England Patriots in 1993. Both teams were beginning new eras in their history.

Still, for one last game at least, the rivalry between the Giants and 49ers was renewed, and the game certainly echoed some of the great moments from the past. The end almost mirrored the finish of that legendary 1991 NFC Championship Game, ended as it did with the Giants behind by one point, and then earning the win with another Bahr field goal. Even knowing what I know now, that the season would prove a disappointment for both teams (and their fans), memories of that particular game still gives me a pleasant feeling. For if there was a consolation to quickly falling from greatness to a mediocrity that the Giants would become only too familiar with at that point, it was in beating the San Francisco 49ers before a national television audience, and watching jubilant Giants fans celebrate such a seemingly enormous win when two quality opponents met, even if it really was the last time.

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