Monday, January 21, 1991

NEW YORK DENIES 49ERS'
BID FOR THREE-PEAT

By Bernie Miklasz
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Staff

SAN FRANCISCO -- As members of the New York Giants jumped for joy, thoughts of the Super Bowl dancing in their heads, a wobbly Joe Montana began to walk off the field, barely able to keep his balance. The San Francisco 49ers' quarterback was in bad shape. And so was their dynasty.

A 49ers team doctor hooked his arm on Montana's. The other 49ers stared at the scoreboard in disbelief. Their season was over. So was the dream of winning a third consecutive Super Bowl, their fifth overall. It was all so sudden.

In boxing it is said that to beat a champion, you must prove yourself by knocking him out. The Giants did just that on Sunday at Candlestick Park. They knocked Montana out of the game in the fourth quarter , then put the 49ers away on Matt Bahr's 42-yard field goal as time expired.

Bahr's fifth field goal of the day gave the Giants an upset 15-13 victory in the National Football Conference championship and a spot in Super Bowl XXV against the Buffalo Bills next Sunday at Tampa Stadium.

The dramatic conclusion was set up with 2 minutes 36 seconds remaining, when Giants nose tackle Erick Howard forced 49ers halfback Roger Craig to fumble on a first-down run up the middle. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor recovered for the Giants at their 43-yard line.

Bahr kicked the game-winner seven plays later, and the 49ers' brilliant reign as the National Football League's two-time defending champion had ended. The Niners had won seven consecutive postseason games until Sunday.

''It hurts a lot,'' Craig said. ''It was a dream to three-peat, to go all the way. It will take some time to get over this.''

The Giants (15-3), who won Super Bowl XXI five years ago, got there again on a flashback - on the strength of their defense. Imagine winning an NFC championship - over the classy 49ers, no less - without scoring a touchdown. The Giants pulled it off.

''Everyone said we couldn't stop the 49ers,'' Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall said. ''They deserved all the respect in the world, but no one is invincible. We played physical, aggressive football and we did it for 60 minutes. We were relentless.''

With the Giants trailing 13-9, Marshall picked himself up off the ground after being blocked down, gave chase and hit Montana squarely from behind. Montana never saw Marshall coming . . . and never knew what struck him.

''It was a good, clean hit, just a football hit, but I knew I hurt him bad,'' Marshall said. ''I knew he wasn't going to be back. I could hear him moaning.''

Marshall's play, coming with 9:41 remaining, began the sequence of events that brought the 49ers (15-3) down.

Montana suffered a bruised sternum and a fracture of the little finger on his right [throwing hand. Afterward, the 49ers team physician said that Montana would have been unable to play in the Super Bowl.

''I still don't know what happened,'' Montana said. ''I'm still having a tough time breathing deeply.''

Though Marshall intended no malice, his hit was delivered as the Giants were still seething over a tackle that knocked their own quarterback, Jeff Hostetler, out for a series.

On the Giants' previous possession, 49ers nose tackle Jim Burt had lunged low at Hostetler on a second-down passing play. Hostetler, his left leg planted as he set to throw, took a shot from Burt's helmet directly on the left knee.

Hostetler stayed down for several minutes, but the injury - a hyperextension - wasn't as serious as feared. The Giants were very serious - and mad at Burt, their former teammate.

''I yelled at Burt,'' Taylor said. ''I hollered, 'If that's the way you want to play, that's how we'll play. But someone else was going to lose a quarterback.''

Montana was put out on the next series, finished after completing 18 of 26 passes for 190 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Taylor with 4:32 elapsed in the third quarter for a 13-6 lead.

It seemingly put the champions in control, but the 49ers offense bogged down considerably the rest of the way, managing only five first downs.

''That was our goal, coming in, to take away the big play,'' linebacker Pepper Johnson said. ''Joe got us one time, but mostly he dumped the ball off. It was short stuff all day.''

Montana was sacked three times and pressured repeatedly. The 49ers' running game posed no threat (as usual), with only 39 yards on 11 rushes. The Giants outgained the 49ers 311-240 and had a 17-minute edge in time of possession. The 49ers converted only one of eight third-down situations.

''We weren't worried about the run; we knew we had to stop Montana,'' Johnson said. ''We got after him. I don't care who you are - even the greatest quarterback - you won't be successful with pressure in your face. That was the key to this game - we got to Joe Montana.''

After Montana's injury the 49ers punted. Then came the next big play: a 30-yard run by Giants linebacker Gary Reasons on a fake punt. Reasons, the signal-caller on punt formation, took a direct snap in front of punter Sean Landeta and veered right. It was wide open for him. Moments before, Reasons was given the green light by Giants coach Bill Parcells.

''The proverbial gaping hole,'' Reasons said. ''The 49ers were dropping people off the line to set up the return, and I knew I could exploit that.''

The daring move set up Bahr's fourth field goal, a 38-yarder with 5:47 remaining, and the Giants were down 13-12.

Steve Young replaced Montana. He completed a 24-yard pass to tight end Brent Jones, but the 49ers went conservative and ran the ball on four of Young's five plays.

The last - Craig's fumble - was fitting. All season long the 49ers had failed to mount a respectable running game, and a running play fi nally did them in.

Howard fought off two blockers to meet Craig head-on. ''We weren't surprised that they didn't try to run much throughout the game,'' Howard said. ''But we were surprised they'd try to run in that situation.''

Hostetler, so nimble on his feet, had another crisp performance for the Giants in only his seventh career start. His passing totals (15 of 27, 176 yards) virtually matched Montana's.

And Hostetler came through on the fateful drive, completing passes of 19 and 13 yards on rollouts to get the Giants into position for Bahr.

Bahr, cut by the Cleveland Browns in the preseason, was signed by the Giants before the fourth game after their regular kicker, Raul Allegre, suffered a pulled groin muscle. He made 15 of 20 field goals this season.

Earlier in the game, Bahr had been wide left on a 37-yard attempt. And now Bahr was staring at the uprights with four seconds remaining, about to attempt the most important kick of his career.

''I'd always like to see us a couple of touchdowns ahead,'' Bahr said. ''That's the truth. In one sense, this kind of situation is what you live and work for as a kicker. But you dread it, too, because so much is on the line. I was nervous, but I felt positive.''

Bahr's kick wasn't automatic. He watched it tail off, heading for the left upright. Said long-snapper Steve DeOssie: ''We were all watching it, holding our breath. I'm sure some guys had their eyes closed.''

But the kick stayed straight long enough to put the Giants in the Super Bowl. Hostetler, who held for Bahr, did a cartwheel. It was over for the 49ers.

''Nobody believed we could do this,'' Hostetler said. ''But there was a strong feeling in this locker room today. We believed in ourselves.''