Greatest Sports Rivalries: San Francisco 49ers vs. New York Giants
Sometimes the best kind of rivalries surface between the two most unlikely teams. With New York, most people expect Boston or Los Angeles to develop into natural enemies. So when the New York Giants found themselves in a growing feud with the San Francisco 49ers it caught a lot of people by surprise. What developed after that was a series of unforgettable showdowns that defined what American football is all about.
Humble beginnings with Y.A. Tittle
Most casual football fans who can recall NFL history believe the rivalry got started in the early 1980s when both teams began to emerge as contenders. However, they don’t realize early rumblings of bitterness began decades back in 1961. That year the Giants were looking for help at quarterback after two failed championship attempts in 1958 and 1959. They reached a deal with San Francisco who willingly gave up four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Y.A. Tittle for a rookie guard drafted in the first round that year. At the time it seemed like a fair deal. Tittle was 35-years old at the time and considered washed up by most. Instead the “old man” went to three more Pro Bowls, including a then record 36 touchdown passes in 1963, which earned him MVP honors. New York reached three-straight championship games. The young guard San Francisco got left the team after just one season. They would not make the playoffs again for nine years.
Joe Montana and Bill Walsh lay the foundation
By 1980 things were starting to look up for the 49ers. New head coach Bill Walsh had an exciting new system in place called the “West Coast” offense and a dynamic young quarterback to run it in Joe Montana. When the team rebuilt its defense in 1981 they stunned the league by posting a 13-3 record after going 6-10 the year before. By a small twist of fate it was this future Hall of Fame quarterback who started the birth of a dynasty by humiliating the Giants in the divisional playoff round. He threw for 304 yards and piled up 38 points. They went on to beat Dallas in the NFC championship and win the Super Bowl. New York clearly wasn't on their level and it would take time to get there. When the two teams met again in 1984, the 49ers beat them not once but twice. In the regular season they handily dispatched New York 31-10 and repeated the feat in the playoffs 21-10 on their way to a second championship. It was clear something had to change or the Giants would never know the feeling of raising a Lombardi trophy.
Bill Parcells and Lawrence Taylor turn the tide
A year later things began to shift. Giants head coach Bill Parcells had retooled his roster into a formidable group, particularly on defense led by future Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor. In 1985 they went 10-6 led by Taylor and a unit that notched an NFL-high 68 sacks. By the time the playoffs rolled around the team was playing good football. Their first opponent in the wild card round was none other than the defending champion 49ers. Experts predicted another easy victory for San Francisco, but Parcells and Taylor had other ideas. The defense smothered Montana all day, stoning the 49ers every time they got into scoring range. Two touchdowns by Giants quarterback Phil Simms before and after halftime was enough to seal a resounding 17-3 victory, the very first at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands.
If anyone thought the win was a fluke, New York put it bed a year later. The 1986 Giants were by far the best of the Super Bowl era to that point. They went 13-3 and saw a major coming out party for their long two-faced offense. Nowhere was that clearer than in a late season matchup against San Francisco. Montana helped his team jump out to a commanding 17-0 lead in the first half. Instead of wilting like in years past, New York rallied in the second, sparked by an unforgettable catch and run by tight end Mark Bavaro. The Giants scored 21 unanswered points and won the game. This victory served as a catalyst for the rest of the season. When San Francisco travelled into New York for the playoffs that January, they were systematically annihilated by the Giants. Simms threw four touchdowns and Taylor intercepted a Montana pass for another as the 49ers were crushed 49-3. From there New York stampeded their way to their first championship in 30 years.
Four seasons later they met in the most critical game of the rivalry, the 1990 NFC championship. San Francisco was riding the wave of back-to-back world championships and gunning for their third in a row. New York had overcome key midseason injuries to their starting quarterback and running back to reach the title game. What followed was a titanic grudge match that was arguably the most physical of any in league history. The defenses dominated all afternoon. Personal feelings also weren't lacking either. Midway through the game former Giants defensive tackle Jim Burt lunged into the lower legs of quarterback Jeff Hostetler, causing him to twist his knee. New York’s defense, angered by the move, responded in kind by blindsiding Montana during a scramble that knocked him out of the game. On a late drive in the 4th quarter, 49ers running back Roger Craig fumbled the ball which was recovered by Taylor. The ailing Hostetler worked the offense down the field to set up a 42-yard field goal in the final seconds. The kick was true. New York won 15-13 and won their second Super Bowl a week later.
Steve Young and Jeff Garcia swing the pendulum again
Thankfully for San Francisco they were geared to compete for years after that heartbreaking defeat. So when the two teams met again in 1993, the last game in the careers of Taylor and Simms, future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young sent them off in typical rivalry fashion. Teamed with running back Ricky Watters he tore apart the Giants defense while the resurgent 49ers stuffed New York on every offensive possession. The game ended 44-3, a fitting statement for what Young was to accomplish the next year.
The two sides continued competing through the ‘90s but always avoided each other in the postseason until they once again locked horns in 2002. By that point the 49ers weren’t their dominant selves like in years past but thanks to quarterback Jeff Garcia had a nice vibe going into that postseason. The Giants meanwhile had gone to the Super Bowl two years before and had a solid young roster of stars including Michael Strahan, Tiki Barber and Amani Toomer. The game soon reflected that rising talent, and the craziness of the rivalry. New York took command early, eating up the San Francisco defense led by Barber and Toomer. By the third quarter they were up 35-14 and ready to score again.
However, a drop in the end zone by tight end Jeremy Shockey led to only a field goal. The 49ers had a slim chance to get back in the game. Garcia took it. In one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history, San Francisco scored 25 unanswered points to take a 39-38 lead late in the 4th quarter. Despite all that, New York had a chance to win at the end with a field goal. A bad snap on the attempt broke the play up and forced the Giants holder to attempt a pass downfield. Controversy soon reigned when penalty flags flew on the resulting incompletion. Many thought the 49ers would get called for pass interference as the intended receiver was dragged down by his jersey. When the call came in, it was actually determined that the receiver, a lineman, was flagged for being an ineligible man down field. San Francisco survived. New York went home.
It was later determined the referees got the call wrong and that the Giants receiver was in fact eligible. All San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci had to say about it was, "Bummer."
Eli Manning proves toughness in rivalry resurgence
As so many times before, a reunion between the two teams took place at the beginning of a new decade. By 2011, new 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh had his team back on the map and thundered to a 13-3 record including home field advantage in the playoffs. Their amazing turnaround was highlighted by a classic back and forth battle with the New Orleans Saints that saw them win on a last second touchdown pass, bringing back memories of Dwight Clark and Terrell Owens. Meanwhile the Giants, after two painful collapses in 2009 and 2010, limped into the playoffs at 9-7 but did so on a winning streak guided by their quarterback Eli Manning. When the two teams met again in the NFC championship it became a question of who would make the fewest mistakes.
Manning took a pounding from the tough 49ers defense all night to the tune of six sacks, often unable to reach his back step before pressure was in his face. Still New York stayed in the ball game thanks to some good defense of their own.
In the second half San Francisco took the lead on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis. It appeared things were going their way until a muffed punt by fill-in return man Kyle Williams led to a Manning touchdown pass that put the Giants back on top. The 49ers tied it, sending the game into overtime. There, just like in their last championship meeting, a costly mistake, this time a fumble by Williams, set up New York with a chance to win. Lawrence Tynes booted the winning field goal and the Giants stunned San Francisco.
Almost predictably, they went on to win the Super Bowl.