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Original Issue

A Frenzy at the Finish A blown (and bizarre) final play by New York capped San Francisco's miracle comeback

49ERS 39 GIANTS 38

One by one they re-counted their celebration stories to San
Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, who sat in front of his
locker and listened. His father, Bob, told of gashing his bottom
lip while wildly leaping into the arms of 49ers defensive
coordinator Jim Mora. Garcia's mother, Linda, explained how she
had slipped past on-field security for the chance to embrace her
son. And Mora related a few memorable moments from the hectic
scene that followed the 49ers' 39-38 wild-card playoff victory
over the New York Giants at 3Com Park on Sunday.

A grinning Garcia took it all in. For the first time in weeks he
was having fun, enjoying the moment. He had just led San
Francisco to the second biggest comeback in NFL playoff history
and silenced, for the time being, the critics who have said that
he doesn't have the tools to lead his team to a Super Bowl--in
short, he's no Joe Montana or Steve Young. "Jeff is a great
quarterback, and now he has his first playoff win," said 49ers
tackle Derrick Deese. "Steve Young had to prove he could win in
the playoffs, and I'm sure Jeff feels the same way. The fans
probably won't completely accept him until he wins a
championship, but they also can't deny that he can do things that
other quarterbacks can't."

What Garcia can do is frustrate defenses with his creative
instincts and mobility. In directing San Francisco's comeback
from 24 points down--second only to the Buffalo Bills' rally from
a 32-point deficit against the Houston Oilers in 1993--he passed
for 331 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 60 yards and
another score. He also received a much-needed jolt of confidence
heading into this Sunday's divisional playoff game against the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa.

Despite playing well enough this season to earn his third
consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl, Garcia was blamed for the
ineffectiveness of the 49ers offense. Critics said he was too
quick to give up on pass plays and scramble. San Francisco's
normally prolific passing attack ranked only 14th in the NFL
(216.1 yards per game), and Garcia's average of 10.2 yards per
completion was the lowest of any 49ers quarterback in 23 years.
His 3,344 passing yards and 21 touchdowns paled in comparison
with his previous two seasons, when he averaged 3,908 yards and
31.5 touchdowns and became the first quarterback in team history
to throw for 30 or more touchdowns in consecutive seasons.

The criticism weighed on Garcia late in the year. Never mind that
he had only one game-breaker in wideout Terrell Owens and that
Garcia's hands were tied somewhat by conservative play calling.
"I realize there's a certain level of expectation around here,
and when we're not doing our best, we hear about it," he said
after Sunday's game. "This team is still trying to find its
niche, but we do have a survivor mentality. We find ways to win."

That's what the 49ers did on Sunday. Owens (nine receptions, 177
yards, two touchdowns) inspired the team with his first ever
halftime speech--"Are we going to be pretenders or contenders,"
he said--but it was Garcia who saved the day. With the Giants
leading 38-14 and 4:27 left in the third quarter, the Niners
went to their two-minute offense, and Garcia showed how well he
can handle pressure. He hit Owens for a 26-yard touchdown, scored
on a 14yard bootleg, connected with Owens on a pair of two-point
conversions and put together San Francisco's longest drive of the
day (15 plays, 74 yards) to set up a 25-yard field goal by Jeff
Chandler that cut the deficit to 38-33 with 7:49 left.

"I just feel comfortable spreading the field and trying to make
plays on the run," Garcia said of his success in the hurry-up
offense. "We were methodical for the first two quarters, and we
never really got our running game going. Once we got into the
two-minute drill, we were able to attack. They never really
blitzed me. All I had to do was figure out who had man coverage
and just get the ball to the right guy."

In the end, the right guy was fourth-year wideout Tai Streets. He
caught the go-ahead, 13yard touchdown pass from Garcia with a
minute remaining, concluding a drive that covered 68 yards in
only 2:01. On the decisive play, XColorado Double Post, Streets
was supposed to run a crossing pattern, but Giants cornerback
Will Peterson anticipated the route and kept the receiver from
making his move to the inside. So Garcia threw the ball to the
outside shoulder of Streets, who turned and made the catch. "That
play showed how well Jeff has learned to take advantage of
weaknesses in a defense," said 49ers offensive coordinator Greg
Knapp. "He knows exactly where to look and go with the ball as
soon as he recognizes certain coverages."

The victory wasn't sealed, though, until New York botched a
41-yard field goal try on the game's final play. Twenty-year
veteran long snapper Trey Junkin, who had been lured out of
retirement five days earlier to replace the injured Dan O'Leary,
made a bad snap to holder Matt Allen. Unable to set the ball,
Allen scrambled to his right and lofted a pass toward guard Rich
Seubert, who was dragged to the ground before he could get his
hands on the ball. The game ended with Seubert being flagged as
an ineligible receiver. Giants coach Jim Fassell, whose offense
had rolled up 377 yards and scored on six of its first nine
possessions en route to that 38-14 lead, said, "To play the way
we did and have the lead we had, I'm not going to get over this
one for a while." Over the last 19 minutes of the game, New York
gained 69 yards.

(It got worse for Fassell on Monday, when the NFL released a
statement saying that, in fact, the Giants had informed the
officiating crew before the game that Seubert would line up as an
eligible receiver on kicking plays. Furthermore, the NFL said,
the officials should have penalized the 49ers for pass
interference on Seubert and flagged the Giants for having another
lineman, Tam Hopkins, ineligible downfield. If those offsetting
penalties had been called, the down would have been replayed with
no time on the clock.)

Delirious 49ers fans poured onto the field to celebrate, and
Garcia soon found himself in his mother's embrace. A couple hours
later, long after his teammates and coaches had departed the
locker room, Garcia finally headed out and found his mother
waiting for him once more--proud that her son had delivered the
improbable comeback. But Garcia's dad wondered if it was enough
to get the critics off Jeff's back. "The guys that came before
him here will always be loved, and the fans will see Jeff as a
quarterback who will never be in that class," said Bob Garcia.
"But that's fine, because Jeff showed that what he gives this
team is plenty good enough."

COLOR PHOTO: DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES TAKE A HIKE After blowing a 38-14 lead, the Giants clinched defeat when Allen (12) couldn't salvage Junkin's errant snap.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK DOUBLE-TALK Halftime speech-maker Owens also spoke volumes with his nine catches, 177 yards and two touchdowns.

COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW J. KOHOON/AP BUC STOPPER The Niners must slow Rice, the NFC's sack leader.


49ers at Bucs

At times on Sunday the 49ers' defense stiffened against the
Giants, but most of the time it was just stiff. Put it against a
high-powered attack and you'd figure the Niners would have to
score 40 to win, but now they're facing the NFL's 24th-ranked
offense, led by a quarterback (Brad Johnson) who hasn't played
since Dec. 15. That's not what's on the minds of some of the
Niners, though. Players with long memories might recall the last
meeting with Tampa Bay, in 1997, a game that marked the coming of
age of the Bucs' defense. Tampa Bay knocked Steve Young out of
the game with a concussion and sidelined Jerry Rice for most of
the year with a torn knee ligament, and the Bucs won 13--6. For
the last three games, though, ever since Tampa Bay clinched a
playoff spot, the defense has been on cruise control.

It'll be stoked on Sunday. The condition of 49ers left tackle
Derrick Deese, who went out of the game against the Giants with a
sprained left ankle, will be critical. He matches up well against
Simeon Rice, the NFC sack leader this season. The Bucs haven't
had an emotional game in quite a while. They will this time.

The Pick: Bucs 20, Niners 17