- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO The San Francisco 49ers kept believing when there was no reason to believe.
Completing the second-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history, the 49ers rallied from a 24-point deficit yesterday to upend the New York Giants 39-38 and win their NFC wild-card game before 66,318 at San Francisco Stadium.
The Giants entered with a four-game winning streak and looked like they were running away with an easy win late in the third quarter, but San Francisco didn't give up.
The 49ers (11-6), whose comeback victory is exceeded in postseason annals only by Buffalo's over Houston (32 points) on Jan.3, 1993, were rewarded with a spot in Sunday's NFC semifinal at Tampa Bay.
"The team kept fighting," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "I don't know if we are the biggest team in the world, or the most experienced, or the most playoff-ready. But I know we have a big heart. We kept fighting regardless of what the score was."
The Giants (10-7) still had a chance to win in the final seconds, but Trey Junkin's bad snap kept them from trying a 41-yard field goal. Another bad snap by Junkin led to a missed field goal earlier in the quarter as New York failed to score after taking a 38-14 lead with 4:27 left in the third.
"I forgot Rule No.1: Always remember that you never make a perfect snap; just make the snap," said Junkin, who was signed this week as New York sought to replace injured long snapper Dan O'Leary. "I just didn't do a good enough job."
It's hard to overstate just how much the Giants were dominating late in the third quarter. Wide receiver Amani Toomer (eight receptions, 136 yards) had just caught a 46-yard pass to set up a short field goal, and on New York's previous possession running back Tiki Barber (26 carries, 115 yards) ran almost untouched for a 6-yard score.
"This is about the worst loss I have ever felt in my entire life," Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "I am not going to get over this one for a while. I am proud of our team. We should have been able to take it all the way. We worked hard to get here but in the end the 49ers got us."
A big part of San Francisco's comeback was the play of wide receiver Terrell Owens, who caught nine passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
Just as crucial as quarterback Jeff Garcia, who opened up the offense with his scrambling ability and quickly advanced the unit downfield when New York seemingly was in control.
"We went into our two-minute offense, our no-huddle offense very early," Mariucci said. "And because we had some success with it, we stayed with it. They don't substitute defensive linemen very often so part of the play was to wear them down."
Garcia and Giants passer Kerry Collins matched each other with superb passing statistics. Garcia threw for 331 yards and a 97.8 rating, while Collins had 342 yards and a 112.7 rating. But San Francisco's quarterback provided the critical X-factor by rushing seven times for 60 yards and a touchdown.
"Plain and simple, Garcia makes plays when they count," Giants linebacker Dhani Jones said. "If he doesn't do it with his arm, he does it with his feet. That man's quite a player."
Garcia needed just 2:20 for a 70-yard touchdown drive after the Giants went ahead 38-14. He capped it when he hit Owens for a 26-yard score and again on a two-point conversion, and the crowd suddenly became a factor again with 2:03 left in the third quarter.
The Giants went three-and-out, punter Matt Allen kicked it just 29 yards and Jones was called for a personal foul for hitting the returner after he signaled for a fair catch. That put San Francisco at the Giants' 27 and Garcia needed just three plays to score another touchdown, this time on a 14-yard run five seconds into the fourth quarter.
All of a sudden it was a game. New York went three-and-out again this from an offense that had gained 370 yards through three quarters and averaged 436 yards in the past three games and the 49ers drove 74 yards in 15 plays for a short field goal. They trailed 38-33.
The first of New York's two missed field goals came next. Junkin's snap wasn't quite as poor as his final snap, but Allen still couldn't get the ball in perfect position and kicker Matt Bryant hooked a 42-yard attempt.
San Francisco again advanced upfield. The Giants lost tight end Eric Johnson in coverage along the left sideline, leading to a 25-yard reception on third-and-2. Wide receiver Tai Streets then caught a 13-yard touchdown, putting the 49ers ahead for the first time since they led 7-0 in the first quarter.
Cornerback William Peterson failed to pick up Streets in zone coverage on the score. Corner Will Allen intercepted the two-point conversion attempt, and a fight broke out when Owens pushed Peterson hard after he went out of bounds. Giants safety Shaun Williams ended up being ejected on the play, having received a second straight unnecessary roughness call both in response to actions by Owens.
"We had our battles out there but I have nothing but respect for him as a football player," Williams said. "There was a lot going on in the heat of the battle and that was all there was to that."
Junkin's snap hit the turf on the final play. Allen immediately rolled right to try a desperate attempt at a touchdown. He threw to left guard Rich Seubert, who was illegally downfield, and that ended the game. The 49ers ran onto the field as the official announced the penalty and certified their miraculous win.
"That's a great comeback," linebacker Julian Peterson said. "That shows so much about our team. We just fought until we couldn't fight no more. I know everybody thought the chips were down, but we came out and finished the game."

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