This is what happens when a proud team gets angry: San Francisco 49ers 44, New York Giants 3. "We were bitter," Niner safety Merton Hanks said after last Saturday's astonishing blowout at Candlestick Park in the second round of the playoffs. "We took it out on the Giants."
The 49ers heard the remarks as they stumbled to three losses in their last four regular-season games. Soft team. Flashy, but the defense could be had. "It got to where our manhood was challenged," Hanks said. "They were calling us out."
The result: Five yards, total, by the Giants in the first period; 41 yards rushing for the game.
Offensively, the Niners had done wondrous things this season when the mood seized them, but hadn't they hoisted their skirts and hollered "Eek!" when confronted by Buddy Ryan's swarming Houston. Oiler defense? And then there was Steve Young. He had led the league in quarterback ranking for the third straight year, but where was the Super Bowl ring?
"I told our quarterback," 49er fullback Tom Rathman said the day before facing the Giants, " 'You can't force things. If there's a six-yard pass, take it and we've got second and four. Don't force.' "
The quarterback had his own ideas.
"Force something?" Young said. "Who knows, I just might. We've got some big-play people here who want to push it. They don't want to be held back. A little crack, the chance for something big—yeah, I just might force something."
So the Niners took the opening kickoff and went 80 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. They drove for a field goal on their second possession, a touchdown on their third, another touchdown on their fifth. The score was 23-0 with 4:03 left in the first half, and the hunt was over.
Big plays? Young went to John Taylor for 31 yards on the game's first drive and again for 43 yards on the last touchdown drive before the half. And when the Niners got close, it was the Ricky Watters show—five touchdowns, the most ever for a player in a postseason game.
How did the Niners carve up a defense as solid as New York's? With their offensive line. It gave Young time, so he could take a seven-step drop, instead of three or five steps. The Giant defense plays what the 49ers call a Cover Nine, with cornerbacks and safeties doubling the wideouts, and linebackers playing the tight end and running backs tight. This would leave the middle open if Young, in a deeper drop, had the time to wait for his receivers to clear. He got that time.
The Giant offense had to play catch-up, and it was forced to turn away from its strong suit, running, and throw. Quarterback Phil Simms's protection failed, and he had no time to look downfield.
People looked for excuses in the New York locker room: The Niners had had two weeks to get ready, while the Giants had had a tough game against the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round.
"Oh, that might account for seven points, or 14," center Bart Oates said, "but not for what happened today. We're not used to getting beat like that. It was an education."