Two weeks and five games of the NFL playoffs were history when the San Francisco 49ers took the field in Candlestick Park against the New York Giants last Sunday and already a pattern had been established: Team A gets off to a big lead, sometimes in shocking fashion; Team B fights back, heroically, dramatically, only to fall short at the end. The lesson: In this era of wide-open football, no lead is safe, especially in the playoffs.
It had worked that way in four of those first five games. Only Dallas refused to follow the script. The Cowboys played crushball all the way in their 38-0 victory over Tampa Bay, but that's the Cowboys for you. They always do things their own way.
So when the 49ers jumped out to a 24-10 halftime lead over the Giants, lighting up the gloomy San Francisco sky with 325 yards worth of offense, there was no one making a move for the exit.
The 49ers and their quarterback, Joe Montana, had played brilliantly in the first half. Montana was looking the Giant secondary off his receivers in the best Johnny Unitas fashion; he was suddenly finding big holes in a zone defense that had been airtight for the last month. San Francisco's blocking scheme called for its guards, Randy Cross and John Ayers, to pick up the linebackers blitzing from the outside, the heart of the Giant pass rush, and this was giving Montana plenty of time to work his magic, mostly to Freddie Solomon, who had six receptions, and Dwight Clark, who had five. On the one occasion on which Montana did look like a sitting duck, when Inside Linebacker Harry Carson came in clean, up the middle, Montana so sold him on a play-action fake that Carson did an about-face and went after the supposed ballcarrier. And Montana calmly lofted a 58-yard scoring pass to Solomon.
"Yeah, I did sense someone rushing me from the inside," Montana said. "I wondered what happened to him."
When they weren't passing, the 49ers were bedeviling the Giants with a running game that featured a new wrinkle—Left Tackle Dan Audick pulling to his right and sealing off the inside on sweeps to that side, an almost impossible maneuver, except that Audick used to be a guard and he has the requisite speed. "We have trouble keeping him from pulling all the time," said Right Tackle Keith Fahnhorst. "He always wants to. So this time they let him." The play sprung Ricky Patton for a 25-yard touchdown to close out the San Francisco scoring in the first half, a half that 49er Coach Bill Walsh called "the finest offensive football we've played in the three years I've been here."
It was pretty, all right, but the pattern of these playoffs had been that the team that breezed in the beginning wound up gasping at the end. As the 49ers trooped into the locker room at halftime, basking in the cheers of their faithful, they were thinking of Buffalo against the Jets, and the Giants against the Eagles, and Cincinnati against the Bills, and, especially, San Diego against Miami.
"That's all we were talking about at halftime," Cross said. "I kept telling people, 'Don't forget what happened to San Diego last night.' Everyone saw that game. You say, 'Realistically a team that's down 24-0 in the first quarter should never come back,' but then I thought, 'Realistically, we'd better score two more touchdowns if we want to win.' "
Well, they scored their two more touchdowns and won 38-24, but not before the Giants made things very scary. The New York defensive unit is proud. It had been wounded in the first half, confused and at times embarrassed, but now it was aroused. "The key to victory in the NFL," Walsh has said, "is a pass rush late in the game," and now the Giants were stepping up the intensity of their pass rush. Early in the third quarter Montana was pressured into a misfire and Strong Safety Bill Currier intercepted. On the next play New York Quarterback Scott Brunner zipped a strike to Johnny Perkins on a post pattern. Cornerback Ronnie Lott missed the interception, and the Giants had a 59-yard TD to pull to within seven, at 24-17.
Suddenly the 49ers' position didn't look so good. New York had muscled its way into the playoffs and past Philadelphia 27-21 in Round 1 on a defense and ball-control game, but here it was hitting San Francisco with lightning bolts, the 59-yarder to Perkins and a 72-yarder to Earnest Gray in the first half, the two longest scoring plays the 49er defense had allowed all year. Now a light rain started to fall, and although the Candlestick turf was not the disaster everyone expected after intermittent showers all week, it was still slippery in spots. This helps the pass catchers and throwers, not the pass rushers and defenders, a fact not lost on Giant Coach Ray Perkins.
"Make no mistake about it," Walsh said. "Perkins is an absolute master of the passing game. He might be the best in the league at it. Yes, I was very worried at that point."
San Francisco was looking shaky. Montana was forced into a quick three-and-out series, and the Giants got the ball and moved from their 29 to the 49er four, third-and-goal. It was at this point, with 4½ minutes left in the third quarter, that another strangely consistent pattern of this postseason asserted itself. Brunner hit Gray on a quickie at the goal line, but Cornerback Eric Wright stripped the ball away, setting up that playoff trademark, the missed field goal. Joe Danelo's 21-yarder hit the left upright—bonk!—and the margin remained seven points.
The big turnaround play, the one that proved to be the most important in the game, came early in the fourth quarter. Facing third-and-long, the 49ers seemingly were pinned on the New York 41, but Giant Defensive End Gary Jeter drew a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. It gave the 49ers a first down on the 26, and four plays later Bill Ring scored the TD that made it 31-17. Seven minutes after that Lott intercepted another Brunner pass for the 20-yard touchdown that put the game away, but the head-scratching over the Jeter call continued. Whom had he roughed? He hadn't been near the quarterback. Referee Ben Dreith had indicated by a short, underhand gesture that an uppercut had been thrown, but at whom? The mystery was cleared up in the locker room.
"He attempted a blow to my stomach and missed," Audick said, and all eyes turned to his stomach. It didn't seem to be a target easy to miss. "I was pass-blocking him as long as I could, within the rules. He decided it was too long, and he retaliated in a fashion he deemed appropriate. I thought, 'What a great idea, I hope the ref saw it.' "
"They called it an attempted punch," Jeter said. "I guess I did attempt it, but I didn't get far with it. I didn't even touch him."
That was only one of several unusual calls. The best was a personal foul on, of all people, the 49ers' kicker, Ray Wersching. "It was on a kick-off," Wersching said. "Number 30 [Leon Perry] tried to block me. I tried to slap him away at the shoulder, but my hand slipped and hit his head." This might be the first time in playoff history a kicker was called for a head slap.
San Francisco was flagged three times for clipping and once for an illegal crack-back block, which drew bitter comments in the Giants' locker room. "Solomon threw a few clips that were illegal," said Cornerback Mark Haynes, who had to sit out one series as a result of one of them. "They kind of played dirty football at the beginning, but that was all right. It just made us play harder."
"I was getting cut on the flow plays," Carson said. "Their offensive linemen were diving at my legs. Even their wide receivers were doing it. That's just their style. That's not dirty football, just good, hard football."
"The extra week we had to prepare helped us offensively," Walsh said. "We could be more diverse. It was very fortunate, because we needed all the offense we could get today; the Giants were getting a lot of yards, too."
Walsh was asked how his defensive backs could be so young yet so poised, and he rolled his eyes skyward. New York had passed for 281 yards against the 49ers, the most yardage they'd given up in the air all year. Indeed, the game was a throwback to the ones they'd played in the early Walsh era when their only hope was to outscore people.
On Sunday Dallas meets San Francisco in Candlestick for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XVI. For three straight years, 1970 through 1972, the Cowboys were the hammer that knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs.
"You'll notice that Dallas was the only team that didn't get involved in a hair-raising playoff game," said Lott. "The reason is that they're a team that doesn't make mistakes in big games. The mistakes we made today...well, we're not going to be able to do that against Dallas and survive."