Joe Montana, the 11-year veteran who plays a lot of quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, approached perfection--for a while--Monday night in Candlestick Park.
Then he fumbled twice, and the New York Giants got into the game with a pretty good quarterback of their own, Phil Simms.
So it was all even, 24-24, in the fourth quarter when Montana cranked up another drive, moving the 49ers 54 yards to the winning field goal in a game that ended 34-24 when they added a last-minute touchdown.
In one of the roughest games of the season--the Giants lost linebacker Lawrence Taylor in the second quarter, and both quarterbacks were briefly knocked out of action--the 49ers advanced to a season's record of 10-2, best in the NFL's National Football Conference and tied with Denver for the best in pro football.
"This gives us a big lift, but I think it's all going to come down to the showdown in Anaheim (against the Rams)," 49er tight end Brent Jones said.
The Giants had matched the 49ers' 9-2 record when the night began, and even in defeat, the Giants held onto first place in the Eastern Division by a game over Philadelphia.
It was a strange sort of game in which Montana threatened to run up a 50-point lead in the first half. Early in the second quarter, he had the 49ers ahead, 24-7.
But where Montana was often brilliant, Simms just kept plugging away for the Giants, closing the score to 24-10 at the half, 24-17 in the third quarter and 24-24 in the fourth.
Then Montana, as he does so often in the final minutes, rallied the 49ers on passes to Jerry Rice, plus a 17-yard scramble of his own.
Seemingly, the tie may well have been extended when, at the Giant 32 and on fourth down, San Francisco kicker Mike Cofer missed a 50-yard field goal attempt.
But the Giants had lined up offside, drawing a five-yard penalty and giving Cofer another chance. His kick was good from 45 yards out for the winning points.
The 49ers' final touchdown came on Tom Rathman's one-yard run after a desperation Giant pass intercepted by Eric Wright at the New York 16.
"We made a good comeback, but the offside penalty and the other mistakes did us in," Giant Coach Bill Parcells said.
San Francisco Coach George Seifert said: "This was our most emotional game of the year, but we're a long way from making the playoffs."
Montana's fumbles when sacked twice marred what could have been a vintage performance. He completed 27 of 33 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns.
Simms, completing 25 of 48 passes for the Giants, threw two touchdown passes but also had three interceptions.
The fumbles and interceptions made it close on a night when the 49ers drove 80, 16 and 35 yards to touchdowns on Montana passes to wide receivers Rice and John Taylor and tight end Brent Jones.
New York halfback David Meggett, who stands 5-feet-7 and weighs 180 pounds, went 53 fast yards through a broken field with one of Simms' passes.
Giant wide receiver Odessa Turner held Simms' other scoring pass, the one that tied the score, 24-24, after a 30-yard drive in the fourth quarter.
"This was the most physical game I've been in," Turner said.
The emphasis all night was on the pass, because the teams' running games were largely ineffective. The 49ers kept trying to run Roger Craig around end, with little success; and the Giants sought to run inside, with no more success, in a game that depended on the passing arms of the quarterbacks for its big plays.
San Francisco linebacker Matt Millen, a former Raider, was the most impressive defensive player on the field, making a third-down stop that forced the Giants into field goal formation and later intercepting a pass that led the 49ers to a touchdown and a 24-7 lead.
Taylor, the Giants' All-Pro linebacker, left the game in an ambulance, but reappeared shortly thereafter on the sideline with a sprained knee and a sprained ankle.
The Giants, who played without two other Pro Bowl stars, tight end Mark Bavaro and running back Joe Morris, said Taylor may miss a game.
"The Giants went into the game conscious of our cutting (blocking) techniques," 49er tackle Steve Wallace said. "After Lawrence Taylor went down, there was bad blood. They were saying we shouldn't have cut him--but it wasn't intentional."
Taylor was hurt on the 49ers' far left side when Craig was sweeping to the 49ers' right--so nobody saw exactly what happened. But the Giant coaches made no protest.
"It was a dogfight right to the end," said Giant linebacker Bill Romanowski. "When we're playing our game, there's no team that can compete with us."