The New York Giants hosted the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, in a must-win contest for both teams as they renewed their storied rivalry. The 49ers used their strong defense and running game to pound out an ugly win in a low-scoring affair, outlasting New York to earn a 16-10 victory.
This was the latest chapter in what has been a truly great rivalry. These two franchises are both very rich in tradition and history, and are both among the most accomplished teams in the National Football League. But they have had a particularly interesting history together. Before the Patriots and Colts rivalry that dominated the last decade, and the Cowboys and 49ers rivalry that dominated the nineties, the Giants and the 49ers had what was probably the best rivalry in football.
These two storied franchises had an interesting game that was essentially a throwback to some of the defensive battles that the two teams had together in the past, in what was an amazing rivalry. These are arguably the two most accomplished franchises in the last thirty years and change, with a total of eight playoff meetings since the 1981 season – easily the most between any two NFL teams during that stretch of time. Since 1981, these two teams have also won the most combined Super Bowls of any two franchises, with a combined nine titles between them. Although neither team looks like they are what they once were, the tradition has been that strange and exciting things happen when these two teams take the field together.
Back in the eighties and into the early nineties, the Giants and 49ers were among the most successful franchises in sports, and their paths crossed numerous times, making it the most interesting rivalry of the decade. There were legendary battles between them, including five playoff meetings between them from 1981 through 1990. The names involved with many of these contests are legendary. Among the most famous names involved in this during this era were Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor, Jerry Rice, Phil Simms, Bill Walsh, and Bill Parcells.
Early on in the decade, the 49ers clearly enjoyed the upper hand, and it was hardly what anyone would have considered a rivalry. San Francisco won every meeting in the first half of the eighties, including two playoff contests following the 1981 and 1984 seasons. But all of that began to change when the Giants managed to turn up their own intensity a few notches. Once they did that, this became truly an epic rivalry for the ages. The Giants finally managed to get over the hump and beat the 49ers in the playoffs following the 1985 season. The 49ers were the defending Super Bowl champs, but the Giants shut them down in the wild card contest, 17-3, although they would go on to lose the following week to the legendary Chicago Bears, who enjoyed a historically dominant season in 1985. But the Giants were clearly getting better over time, and closer to reaching that championship level themselves. With San Francisco already consistently playing at elite level, the rivalry between these two teams became very intriguing in the latter half of the eighties and into the early nineties.
Some of the most memorable games of the rivalry included playoff games and numerous nationally televised games, particularly Monday Night Football match-ups, which included a 21-17 road victory for the Giants in 1986. New York staged an epic comeback in that one after trailing 17-0 at halftime to win. The Giants would go on to win their first ever Super Bowl that season, trouncing the 49ers in the playoffs along the way, 49-3. The 49ers would exact a measure of revenge in 1988, when the two teams met again at the old Giants Stadium. The 49ers were winning for most of the game, and held a 13-10 lead late in the fourth quarter, when the Giants managed to get a touchdown late in the game for an apparent come from behind victory. But once San Francisco was back on offense with less than a minute to play, Joe Montana threw a Hail Mary pass to Jerry Rice that was completed for a deceptively easy looking touchdown to shock the Giants, and they ultimately won, 20-17. They would go on to win the Super Bowl that season, their third in eight seasons, clinching their status as “Team of the Decade.” The Giants and 49ers met yet again in 1989, with both teams then sporting identical 9-2 records, the best in the NFL at that point. The 49ers won that highly anticipated contest, 34-24, and went on to win their second straight Super Bowl, their fourth title of the eighties.
They would meet yet again on Monday Night Football in 1990, when the rivalry really reached its peak. Both teams raced out to perfect 10-0 starts, and they only had one game each to go before they were scheduled to meet in what was expected to be a meeting of perfect 11-0 teams. However, they both lost to division rivals the weekend before that meeting, spoiling the hopes of a battle between unbeaten titans. Still, it was among the most eagerly anticipated Monday Night Football games of all time, and ranked just under a 1985 game between the Dolphins and the Bears as the most watched Monday night game at the time. But the game was not what everyone expected. Many had hoped that the game would showcase brilliant offense, and would be a shootout. Instead, it was a defensive struggle, and would prove to be the lowest scoring contest of the entire season. The Giants drew blood first when they scored a field goal late in the second quarter, but the 49ers quickly answered when Montana found wide receiver John Taylor for a touchdown, giving them a 7-3 lead. That was it for the scoring in the game. The Giants had some opportunities late, but they opted for a touchdown on fourth down for the lead instead of a more sure field goal that would have gotten the game closer, and they lost that bet when San Francisco’s defense held. It forced them to have to go for a winning touchdown later in the game, which they were unable to convert, securing the victory for the 49ers. After that game, 49ers corner back Ronnie Lott ran right up and got in the face of Giants quarterback Phil Simms, further evidence of just how heated this rivalry had become.
It was no surprise that the two teams would meet in the playoffs following the 1990 season, which they did in the NFC Championship Game in January of 1991. It was likely the most memorable game in this storied rivalry. Much like their meeting earlier in the season, this was an intense defensive battle, with the Giants owning the best defense in the league, and the 49ers having the second rated defense in the NFC. The two teams exchanged a pair of field goals each in an evenly played first half. But in the second quarter, once again, Joe Montana found John Taylor for a touchdown, and the San Francisco home crowd cheered wildly, sensing blood.
The Giants tightened up, however, and the defense prevented the 49ers from adding to the lead. In the meantime, New York chipped away at the lead with another field goal. In the fourth quarter, the Giants had the ball again, but were unable to get anything solid going, stopped cold by the tough defense from San Francisco. The punting unit took the field, although Parcells, the Giants head coach, had other things on his mind. When the ball was snapped, it went to linebacker Gary Reasons instead of Sean Landeta, the Giants punter. Reasons ran for a lot of yardage, easily enough to pick up a first down to keep the drive alive. The Giants were able to capitalize by getting another field goal, and the 49ers lead was down to 13-12. San Francisco desperately tried to keep that lead whenthey were driving late in the fourth quarter, trying to kill the clock and preserve the win, when Eric Howard of the Giants hit 49ers running back Roger Craig hard, knocking the ball loose. The fumble was recovered by Lawrence Taylor, giving the Giants the ball back with one last chance to win the contest. They drove down the field and had an opportunity for a winning field goal by Giants place kicker Matt Bahr on the final play of the game. It split the uprights, and the Giants went on to the Super Bowl, which they won in another tight and memorable contest against the Buffalo Bills.
There was one last eagerly anticipated meeting between the two during this era on the opening Monday Night Football game for the 1991 season. San Francisco held a league record 20-game road win streak, while the Giants were, of course, the defending champs. The main difference for both teams came at quarterback, with Steve Young replacing Joe Montana for San Francisco, and Jeff Hostetler replacing Phil Simms for New York. In a game that was reminiscent of their legendary Championship Game in January, the Giants and 49ers again played a tough game dominated by defense. Scoring was at a premium, and the 49ers held a 14-13 lead late in the fourth quarter, when once again, Giants placekicker Matt Bahr split the upright to hand New York a victory right at the end. It seemed to bode well for the Giants hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champs, but it was not to be. The Giants finished the season with an 8-8 record, and were not serious playoff contenders. The 49ers also wound up missing the playoffs that season, and the peak part of this rivalry was over.
Still, the Giants and 49ers would meet in future playoff contests, and a couple of them were quite memorable. The first such meeting, however, was not one of the more competitive games. It came in the playoffs following the 1993 season, and the 49ers won it easily, 44-3, which was especially fueled by 49ers running back Ricky Waters, who got an NFL playoff record 5 rushing touchdowns on that day. In 2002, the two teams met again, with completely different lineups. The Giants offense looked unstoppable in the first half, racing out to a 38-14 lead, only to have San Francisco stage an enormous comeback that, at the time, ranked as the second biggest comeback victory in NFL Playoff history. They won it, 39-38.
Once again, these two teams met in the playoffs following the 2011 season, in the NFC Championship Game. Like their previous Championship Game meeting back in 1991, the Giants were the road team, and also like that previous meeting, New York was trying to reach their second Super Bowl in five seasons. It was another tough, defensive battle, and the teams were so evenly matched, that the contest went into overtime tied 17-17. But a crucial turnover on special teams by the 49ers deep in San Francisco territory gave the Giants the ball, and an opportunity to win it with a field goal. The attempt split the uprights and, once again, the Giants advanced to the Super Bowl with a 20-17 win in overtime. They would go on to beat the Patriots to win their fourth Super Bowl overall.
The most recent meeting between the two teams came in 2012. The Giants were the defending champs, but were struggling at that point, with a 3-2 record. The 49ers were among the favorites to win the Super Bowl that season, and sported a 4-1 record. They had home field advantage on their side and were the solid favorite. They also had the revenge factor on their side, as they looked to avenge their playoff loss, and most people expected them to win solidly. The Giants surprised many, however, by dominating San Francisco, earning a decisive 26-3 win. Still, New York would fail to qualify for the playoffs that season, while the 49ers won the division with an 11-4-1 record. They would qualify for the Super Bowl, but would lose narrowly to the Baltimore Ravens.
Now, the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers met once again Sunday at MetLife Stadium, as they renewed their rivalry. These two teams already have a rich and storied rivalry together, and this game, which was seen as a must-win for both sides, recalled some of their earlier, mostly defensive, physical battles between the two franchises in the past.
Many expected the 49ers to win convincingly, but the Giants were able to keep San Francisco’s potentially explosive offense from scoring many points. San Francisco was held to three field goals in the first half, and their only touchdown of the game came early in the third quarter, with the only truly bad slip that the New York defense allowed all game.
San Francisco’s defense played incredibly well, also, keeping the Giants to a total of 10 points into the fourth quarter, when the Giants had a great chance late in the game to take a lead that likely would have clinched the win. Rookie Odell Beckham was able to bring the ball in while falling and being very well defended for a 37-yard pick up on a truly spectacular play, possibly one of the highlights of this weekend. The play gave the Giants four opportunities at what would have been a touchdown to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. It could have possibly won the game for them. Instead, the Giants ran fade patterns three plays in a row, with each one failing. That had many questioning the play calling for the Giants after they failed to convert and turned it over on downs. The 49ers ran a lot of time off the clock on offense after that, leaving New York with little time to work with. They never came close to scoring again, and San Francisco was able to preserve the victory.
Neither team is where they expected or wanted to be at this point. The Giants are now 3-7 with the loss, and have now lost five in a row. The 49ers still are among the favorites for the Super Bowl, even though they have had an up and down season, and lost some games that most expected them to win. Still, they have won their last two en route to the 6-4 record that they have following this game, which was their second straight road win.
The stakes were increased even further, however, when Perry Fewell, the defensive coordinator for a Giants defense that is currently ranked worst in the league, promised that the defense would step up big time for this game. They did, but he went as far as to publicly guarantee a Giants win this Sunday, which they ultimately fell short of. Fewell even went one step further, suggesting that even though the Giants had dug themselves a deep hole so far this season, they would indeed find a way to dig themselves out and be a serious playoff contender again this season. With this loss, however, it is difficult to see how they can possibly recover to catch so many serious playoff contenders that are well ahead of them at this point.
The good news for the Giants is that there is little room to go but up for New York’s defense. The Giants had entered the game having lost their previous four games by an average of more than 18 points, and during that stretch, they had allowed 423 or more yards in four consecutive games for the first time in franchise history. Indeed, the defense has been looking extremely vulnerable, and the number of experts that believe New York is a playoff caliber team seems to be diminishing with each passing week. The defense did indeed step up and had a solid game again the 49ers in this game, however. Even while they allowed 333 yards by San Francisco’s offense, they nonetheless held them to only 16 points total, effectively bending but not breaking. They got crucial stops at key moments, and gave the Giants offense every opportunity to win this game. For the most part, the defense did their part.
It was New York’s offense that had people scratching their heads this time around. Head coach Tom Coughlin described this game as an “offensive fiasco” for the Giants. The running game was not much of a factor for them, and quarterback Eli Manning had a dismal day. He completed 22 of 45 passes for 280 yards and one touchdown. But the one thing people are likely to truly remember from Manning’s performance in this game was his having thrown five costly interceptions, which ties his career high. A couple of good offensive chances for New York in the second half ended with Manning throwing interceptions.
Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback, also did not have a great day, completing 15 of 29 passes for 193 yards and one touchdown. He also ran the ball for an additional 24 yards, and threw no interceptions. Frank Gore was a force on the ground for San Francisco, picking up 95 yards on 18 carries. His running was particularly effective late in the game, when the 49ers were trying to kill the clock out on the Giants.
The 49ers are clinging to hopes of winning the NFC West. They are now tied for second in the division race with the Seattle Seahawks, last season’s Super Bowl champs, who lost at Kansas City. But both teams are trailing the surprising Arizona Cardinals in the race for the NFC West. The Cardinals defeated the Detroit Lions, and still hold a three game lead over San Francisco, with one of their wins having been against the 49ers. Still, San Francisco hopes to recover enough to at least have a chance at winning the division or, failing that, to at least clinch a playoff berth.
For the Giants, whatever slim hopes they held for a recovery back into contention this season effectively ended with this loss. The 3-7 Giants are four full games behind both the Eagles and the Cowboys in the NFC East, with only six games remaining. While it is true that the Giants played better in this game against the 49ers that renewed the rivalry between the two franchises, they nonetheless failed to win a tight contest that they simply could not afford to lose. All that Tom Coughlin is looking for at this point is for his team, which won the Super Bowl only three seasons ago, to play a complete game. He said that while the offense was playing relatively well in some games, the defense let the team down and killed their chances of winning games. Now that the defense stepped up in a big way and kept the Giants in this one until the end, it was the offense that failed and prevented New York from capitalizing enough to win this game. Simply having the team as a whole play one complete game, with both offensive and defensive units playing well enough to win, would be a huge positive for the Giants in a season that has spiraled downwards in a hurry. With only six games to go before the season ends, however, time is running out for them to do that.
Opinion by Charles Bordeau
Photo by Rajiv Patel (Rajiv’s View) – Flickr