The irony of this most unexpected pairing can't be missed. The NFC Championship Game matchup that we never saw coming -- Giants versus 49ers -- is actually one we've become very familiar with over the course of the past three decades of postseason history.
No two NFL teams have met in the playoffs more often than San Francisco and New York, with Sunday's title game at Candlestick Park marking their league record-tying eighth postseason showdown, all from 1981 on.
Their intense and multi-chaptered playoff rivalry has given us some indelible memories to pick through this week, from Jim Burt's concussion-producing hit on Joe Montana in New York's 1986 divisional playoff rout of the 49ers, to Roger Craig's game-turning fumble late in the Giants' taut 1990 NFC title game upset, to the agony and ecstasy produced by Trey Junkin's ill-fated and failed center snap on the pivotal play of the 49ers' mind-boggling 39-38 win in 2002's first-round game, when San Francisco rallied to victory after trailing by 24 in the third quarter.
In its heyday, the 49ers-Giants playoff series helped launch four Super Bowl champions in the 10-season span of 1981-90, and there's something vaguely comforting in knowing these two proud franchises are back at it once again, fighting for the game's biggest prize, just one step shy of its grandest stage.
"We had some classic battles,'' said former Giants linebacker Carl Banks, now a color analyst for the team's radio broadcasts. "In some ways, not much has changed. I think the world is right now that the Giants and the 49ers are playing again for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.''
San Francisco Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott laughed when I asked if he concurs with Banks' zen-like assessment?
"He couldn't have said it any better,'' Lott said. "All is right. You talk about two proud organizations. There's so much history to the Giants and so much history to the 49ers, and it goes all way back to a guy like Y.A. Tittle playing for both teams at one time or another. There's been a lot of great players on the Giants and 49ers, so, yeah, all is right when you have these two competing for the right to go to the Super Bowl.''
We didn't know we were watching an NFC Championship Game preview in Week 10, when the 49ers held on to win a narrow 27-20 victory over the Giants in Candlestick, with defensive lineman Justin Smith sealing the deal by batting down a fourth-down Eli Manning pass deep in San Francisco territory. But the vaunted Packers and Saints have both been vanquished, and it's the resurgent 49ers (14-3) and discounted Giants (11-7) who are still standing, and still dreaming of a trip to Indianapolis. They've stood in each other's way plenty of times before, but come Sunday, only one of them will get to add a chapter they care to remember to the legacy of this storied playoff rivalry.
The math at the moment favors the 49ers, but only slightly. San Francisco has won four of the seven playoff matchups, going 4-1 at Candlestick against the Giants and 0-2 on the road. But the guts of this series came in the seven seasons from 1984 to '90, when the two NFC rivals met four times in the postseason, with New York winning three of those games. Both teams won a pair of rings by getting past one another in the playoffs, with the 49ers reaching the mountaintop in 1981 and 1984, and the Giants matching them with Super Bowl victories in 1986 and 1990.
The 49ers-Giants rivalry started with that first playoff meeting, after the 1981 season. New York was making its initial playoff appearance since 1963, and San Francisco was back in the postseason for the first time since 1972. This was the dawn of the 49ers glory era, with both head coach Bill Walsh and Montana in their pivotal third season in San Francisco, while Lawrence Taylor was a breathtaking rookie sensation in New York. Giants defensive coordinator Bill Parcells was still two years away from succeeding head coach Ray Perkins, who would leave for the University of Alabama.
In that 1981 NFC divisional playoff game, the host 49ers beat the wild-card and underdog Giants 38-24, with both teams coming into the game with the identical regular-season records (13-3 for San Francisco, 9-7 for New York) they would produce this season, 30 years later. Three years later, the two teams met again in the divisional round in the first head-to-head postseason showdown between Walsh and Parcells.
"That was the one that started the rivalry, the hatred -- and I say that in loving terms -- of the 49ers,'' said Banks, a rookie linebacker that season. "Those 49ers, those guys on the West Coast, they were just so good that you hated them. And it started because there was a different type of arrogance about them. They were kind of finesse, but they also didn't back down.
"I remember distinctly in that game a play where Joe Montana rolls out of the pocket and [inside linebacker] Harry Carson is chasing him, and he's near the sideline, and he's about to lay Joe out. But Joe pulls up like he's going out of bounds, tucks the ball down, and Harry starts to pull up. At that point, Joe runs for another 10 yards or so. You talk about being under everybody's skin after that one. It was like, 'Oh, we're going to get this guy at some point. We've got to get him. Because we don't forget.' ''
The Giants, of course, would get Montana in time. It was Burt, New York's burly little nose tackle, who knocked Joe Cool out of that 1986 divisional playoff with a concussion, early in the second half of a shocking 49-3 Giants victory. And then, four years later, it was New York defensive lineman Leonard Marshall who effectively ended Montana's career with a devastating blindside sack in the fourth quarter of New York's epic 15-13 upset of the two-time defending Super Bowl champion 49ers in the 1990 NFC title game at Candlestick. Montana missed the entire 1991 season, played in just one game in 1992 and was traded to Kansas City in 1993.
"Oh, yeah, we knew he was hurt,'' Banks recalls. "Joe wasn't the biggest guy in the world, and he took that hit, and it was the second time in my career that I saw him literally laid out in the fetal position. You knew he wasn't coming back, because Leonard went about 310 [pounds] at the time, and Joe was about 195 pounds soaking wet.''
Niners tight end Brent Jones grew up in the Bay Area and played his entire career in San Francisco (1987-97), and he watched and then participated in the 49ers-Giants rivalry. He still considers that 1990 NFC title-game defeat the most painful of his life, and has trouble even speaking of Craig's late-game fumble that turned the tide and sparked New York's game-winning drive and 42-yard Matt Bahr field goal as time expired. Twice during our conversation, Jones merely made rather opaque reference to "the ball sitting on the ground,'' never mentioning either Craig's name or the word "fumble.''
"To this day, I don't know if there was a more intense game than that one,'' Jones said. "That was a tough one. It was ugly. I still have not watched that game. It's painful. It's frustrating. It still bothers me, because I felt like we were going to win three [Super Bowls] in a row. I can just remember being so bitter because we lost, and bitter because it was the Giants. The rivalry had already been on by the time I got there, but for them to come out on top in a game that we felt was in the bag really hurt.''
Though they were never division rivals, it almost seemed as if they were in the 1980s, said veterans of both the 49ers and Giants. Besides their playoff matchups, San Francisco and New York played semi-often under the spotlight of Monday Night Football, usually in Candlestick, with plenty on the line.
"It felt like you were playing a division rival,'' Banks said. "Even though you didn't play them on a regular basis, every chance you got to play them you wanted to beat those guys. They just had their own way of doing things, their own style.''
It was that marked contrast in styles that in part made the 49ers-Giants series so compelling. The 49ers and their head coaches -- both Walsh and George Seifert -- were the epitome of West Coast cool, with a passing-first offense that was known more as a finesse-type attack. The Giants and Parcells were so East Coast brash, with a defense and a power running game that fed off its physicality, and in some ways both cities seemed to be perfectly reflected by their football teams. At least those were the stereotypes that prevailed at that point, although everyone seems to agree there was more than a little truth behind the labels.
"Absolutely it was accurate to a certain degree,'' Banks said. "We were more blue-collar, foot-to-the-pavement, and you just kind of got that metaphorical sense that they were the guys who were laid back, with less practice time, more days off, all of that. And yet they were good, with these so-called finesse guys being very tough-minded. We were going to show that our way was better than their way, and so were they. It was a lot of fun, and it was a lot of contrasting theories if you will.
"With the coaches, one guy was as blue-collar as it gets (Parcells), and the other guy (Walsh) was kind of a cerebral, professorial type of guy who talked with all the right phrases, and never used football jargon. He always talked with a different level of intellect.''
The finesse tag stuck to the proud 49ers like a reputation for having body odor, and more than one San Francisco veteran still points out that the franchise "finessed'' its way to an NFC-record five Super Bowl titles in a 14-season span. But as Jones said, "There was some truth to it. The Giants were blue-collar and blood and guts, and then, of course, we were more a West Coast, finesse team. That always bothered everybody, but you can't talk your way through a label like that. You have to show them. We won our share, and they won theirs.''
When the rivals met in the playoffs, they had enough respect for the way each other went about their business that they even tried to imitate each other, Lott said, perhaps offering the highest form of flattery.
"When you look back at the history of our games against each other, there were times where it was us trying to play that kind of smash-mouth style of football they were known for,'' he said. "You found yourself on defense trying to emulate them. And then on offense, you could see them at times trying to emulate us and how we played the game, with Phil Simms completing 20 straight passes in one game out here, with a West Coast style passing offense.''
Lott enjoyed pointing out how the worm has turned to some degree, with the Giants now known more for their explosive passing attack and Eli Manning's dangerous right arm, and the 49ers winning this year with more of a formula based on their incredibly stingy defense, and power running game. Time has erased some of the labels worn by these two historic combatants, but the passion and intensity of their rivalry will be rekindled this week with a berth in the Super Bowl up for grabs.
"I always tell people, and I mean this is in a lighthearted way, in my career I'll never get over the Dallas Cowboys and I'll never get over the San Francisco 49ers, because it just seemed like there were so many big, high-profile games against both,'' said Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback turned CBS NFL analyst.
"There are a lot of memories [of this rivalry], and they went from maybe the great, to the greatest, to the worst. I remember our playoff victories in our stadium, and of course, I remember the playoff losses out there, too. The games were awesome, and there was something very good about it. We always knew somewhere along the line, it was going to be about us and them there in the mid-to-late '80s.''
On Sunday in Candlestick, the rivalry resumes, in the biggest possible game in which the Giants and 49ers can meet. Once more, with feeling, it's San Francisco and New York, in an NFC title game blast from the past that we never saw coming.