It’s been nine years since the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers last played each other in a contest that even approached the magnitude of the game they are about to play on Sunday in San Francisco, when the two adversaries will clash for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVI.
But, especially for a pair of non-divisional rivals on opposite coasts, the Giants-49ers rivalry has been a good one, mostly created through some very memorable postseason games that stretch back three decades, to 1981.
Former Giant great, LB Carl Banks, who was a part of the rivalry between 1984 and 1992 said, “It felt like you were playing a division rival. Even though you didn’t play them on a regular basis, every chance you got to play them, you wanted to beat those guys.”
Sunday’s matchup will be the second time the teams will meet for the NFC title, and the eighth overall playoff meeting between the teams.
Including the 49ers’ 27-20 win over the Giants on November 13th, and some other unforgettable moments like Giants tight end Mark Bavaro dragging a gang of 49er tacklers down the field with him to help rally the Giants from a 17-0 deficit to a Monday Night Football win in San Francisco, the teams have evenly split 28 regular season games, going back to the inaugural time the teams met, at the Polo Grounds, in 1952.
However, as close as that portion of the series has been, the playoff encounters between the Giants and 49ers have made the rivalry what it is.
San Francisco won the first two and the last two of the previous seven postseason meetings, while New York was victorious in the middle three of those contests, with four of the seven meetings resulting in a pair of Super Bowl victories for each team:
1981 Divisional Playoff (1/3/82):Giants QB Scott Brunner tied the game, 7-7, on a 72-yard touchdown pass to WR Ernest Gray, but 25-year-old QB Joe Montana (20-31, 304 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) connected with WR Freddie Solomon a 58-yard touchdown strike to put the 49ers up 17-7 in the second quarter. Brunner (16-37, 290 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) got the Giants to within 24-17 on a 59-yard touchdown throw to WR Johhny Perkins in the third quarter, but a 20-yard interception return for a fourth-quarter touchdown gave San Francisco an insurmountable 38-17 lead.
FINAL SCORE: 49ers 38, Giants 24… The 49ers went on to win Super Bowl XVI over Cincinnati.
1984 Divisional Playoff (12/29/84):Three seasons later, the 49ers’ defense overcame three interceptions by Montana (25-39, 309 yards, 3 TD), as they held the Giants to just 260 total yards of offense and intercepted QB Phil Simms (25-44, 218 yards, 0 TD) twice. San Francisco led 14-0 after the first quarter on touchdown passes from Montana to WR Dwight Clark (for 21 yards) and TE Russ Francis (for nine yards) before LB Harry Carson returned a third-quarter interception to pull New York to within 14-10. The Giants were shut out the rest of the way though, as Solomon finished them off with a 29-yard reception in the final quarter.
FINAL SCORE: 49ers 21, Giants 10… The 49ers later routed Miami in XIX.
1985 Wild-Card Playoff (12/29/85):Exactly a year later, finally getting a chance to host the 49ers in the postseason, the Giants posted their first playoff win against their west coast rivals. The 49ers barely outgained the Giants, 362-355, and Montana (26-47, 0 TD, 1 INT) threw for significantly more yardage than Simms (15-31, 181 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT), with 120 yards on eight catches going to Clark, but Montana was sacked four times, twice by DT Jim Burt, as the Giants built a 10-3 halftime lead before shutting the 49ers out in the second half.
FINAL SCORE: Giants 17, 49ers 3
1986 Divisional Playoff (1/4/87):A year later, the Giants took over the mantle as clearly the NFL’s most dominant team, from the powerful Chicago Bears squad that knocked them out of the playoffs a year earlier. New York dismantled San Francisco, scoring 21 points in each of the middle two quarters, as they held the 49ers to just 184 total yards. Burt forced Montana (8-15, 98 yards, 2 INT) out of the game in the second quarter with a vicious hit that resulted in a 34-yard interception return by LB Lawrence Taylor. The pick was one of four San Francisco turnovers, matching the number of touchdown passes thrown by Simms (9-19, 136 yards, 0 INT), three of which were over 20 yards.
FINAL SCORE: Giants 49, 49ers 3… The Giants later blew out Denver to capture their first Super Bowl title.
1990 NFC Championship (1/20/91):With the backdrop of the Iraq war overseas and strong nationalistic feelings throughout the country (players were yellow arm bands in honor of United States military members), the Giants and 49ers played an epic conference title game that was later featured in the NFL’s Greatest Games television series. Kickers Mike Cofer and Matt Bahr were locked in a field goal battle in a brutally physical game that was dominated by both defenses. Backup QB Jeff Hostetler filled in for Phil Simms, who was injured after leading the Giants to a 10-0 start to their season. Hostetler played his role well as a game manager (15-27, 176, 0 TD, 0 INT), allowing the Giants’ defense to keep Montana (18-26, 190 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) and the top-seeded 49ers in check. A 61-yard, third-quarter touchdown pass from Montana to WR John Taylor provided the game’s only touchdown and gave the 49ers a 13-6 lead in the third quarter. But, DE Leonard Marshall pounced on Montana like footage seen on a National Geographic show, forcing Montana out of the game with a severe concussion and a broken finger. New York later recovered a fumble by RB Roger Craig with 2:36 remaining to set Bahr up for his fifth field goal, from 42 yards out, as time expired, to send the Giants to the Super Bowl in stunning fashion, as New York eliminated San Francisco from the playoffs for the third time in six years.
FINAL SCORE: Giants 15, 49ers 13… The next game, the Giants barely edged Buffalo, 20-19, in Super Bowl XXV.
1993 Divisional Playoff (1/15/94):Montana had moved on to close out his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, paving the way for the Steve Young era at quarterback in San Francisco. So, while Montana never got revenge for the drubbing he took six years earlier against the Giants in the playoffs, the 49ers did, in a big way. San Francisco scored the first 23 points, all in the first half, and never looked back while outgaining the Giants 178-41 for the game on the ground, led by RB Ricky Waters (24 carries, 118 yards), who scored on five short touchdown runs (four of just a yard or two and another from six yards out). It was a painful way for both Simms and Taylor to end their football careers.
FINAL SCORE: 49ers 44, Giants 3
2002 Wild-Card Playoff (1/5/03):Just as painful in a different way, was the Giants’ meltdown of historical proportions nine years later, in San Francisco, which like the 1990 NFC title game, was also featured as one of the NFL’s Greatest Games, as the finish truly put the “wild” in “wild-card.” QB Kerry Collins was having a great day (he finished the game 29 of 43 for 342 yards, 4 TD, and just 1 INT), but TE Jeremy Shockey dropped what should have been Collins’ fifth touchdown pass, standing wide open in the end zone, in the third quarter. What seemed like a drop to simply prevent Collins and the Giants from padding their stats, ended up costing them the game, and no one – perhaps not even the 49ers, saw it coming. Instead of extending an already huge lead to 42-14, New York settled for a field goal and a 38-14 advantage with 19:27 left in the game before the 49ers incredibly stormed back with 25 unanswered points to win. As wild as San Francisco’s comeback was, the finish was even crazier, and extremely maddening for the Giants and their fans. LS Trey Junkin, signed less than one week out of retirement at age 41, botched two snaps in the final three minutes, including one on the final play of the game that cost the Giants a chance at a very makeable attempt at a game winning field goal. However, Junkin’s misstep wasn’t as bad as the referees’, who mistakenly denied New York another chance to win the game. OG Rich Seubert was pulled down as a desperation pass attempt was made downfield after the bad snap on the final play. Although the Giants had another illegal man downfield besides Seubert, the referees ignored what should have been a pass interference call, thinking Seubert had not legally checked in as an eligible receiver when in fact he had. The penalty on the actual illegal man downfield should have been canceled out by a pass interference call against the 49ers, which would have allowed the Giants another attempt at a 40-yard field to win the game. But, the correct call was never made, and 49ers survived.
FINAL SCORE: 49ers 39, Giants 38
Carl Banks quote: