They held Joe Montana to one of the worst nights of his career, and it was not enough. They held the San Francisco 49er offense to only 240 total yards, and it was not enough.
They had four chances to get into the end zone from inside the 49er nine-yard line as the game wound down, and it was not enough for the New York Giants to beat the two-time defending Super Bowl Champion 49ers.
They lost, 7-3, in a game that was rightly declared then a preview of the conference championship. Both teams started that game 10-1, and it ended up determining home-field advantage for the championship game.
In fact, heading into Sunday’s NFC championship game against the 49ers at Candlestick Park, after their showdown six weeks ago Monday night, the Giants have now lost four consecutive games to the 49ers.
The Giants have been one of the NFC’s most successful teams over the last few seasons, but lately, in this age of 49er glory, it has not been enough. Never enough.
Now, with a substitute quarterback but the same dependable running game and defense, here come the New Yorkers once again, this time to try to prevent an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl title for San Francisco.
“We told them after the last game we’d be back,” said Giant linebacker Lawrence Taylor, a man known for breaking bones, not promises. “Just like MacArthur, we’re back.”
They are. And this time, the Giants will have the more mobile Jeff Hostetler at quarterback replacing starter Phil Simms, who suffered a foot injury Dec. 15 and is not available.
It was Simms, big-game tested but pocket-locked, who missed on the four consecutive passes with less than five minutes remaining in the loss last month at Candlestick.
Hostetler, who has won all five games he has started in his NFL career, ran six times for 43 yards and a touchdown in the Giants’ 31-3 victory over the Chicago Bears last week in the frigid Meadowlands.
“We’ve got a couple of surprises for them this time,” Taylor said. “A couple of years ago we got into a shoot-out with them and lost (34-24 in 1989). This year we got into a defensive struggle and lost. It’s time for the Giants to find a way to win.”
The way the Giants’ defense contained the 49ers six weeks ago was by deploying an extra defensive back on all downs, daring San Francisco to run the ball.
The 49ers couldn’t--a familiar pattern all year for the 18th-ranked rushing team in the league--and Montana was atypically shaky, completing fewer than 50% of his passes--12 of 29--for only the third time since 1985.
But Montana has shown time and again that he doesn’t get the shakes at playoff time, and when he is on, the 49ers beat people without the pressing need to run the ball.
After last week’s pinpoint passing against the Washington Redskins in the 49ers’ 28-10 victory, Montana has now thrown for 21 touchdowns--and only one interception--and completed almost 80% of his passes in his last seven playoff games, all victories.
Montana is 4-1 in NFC championship games and 14-4 in postseason play, which is 13 more playoff victories than Hostetler can claim. To be fair, however, Montana has about 13 more playoff victories than about any other quarterback in the league.
And he says his struggles against the Giants this season probably won’t be duplicated.
“I think we went in with a conservative-type plan,” Montana said. “The plan wasn’t for me to hold the ball whenever I had a chance. If I really had to move around, they didn’t want me to take any chances with the ball.
“ ‘If (the play) is not there, go through your reads and unless you really have an opening, go ahead and just throw the ball away.’ Just so we didn’t get sacked and give them a big play.
“They had been stripping the ball a lot, especially from the quarterback, and they try and make something happen. I just didn’t want to give them a big play. We’re going to try and play them a little more straight up than we did.”
Said 49er Coach George Seifert: “I would think we both will make some changes. You don’t want to stay with exactly the same thing because you know that’s what they’ll be looking for.”
The wild card in the equation for this game is Hostetler, who worries the 49ers with his ability to get outside the pocket and turn broken plays into first downs and big gains. Each of his six runs against the Bears last week was for a first down, two of them on fourth down. “He brings a different dimension,” Seifert said. “You have to design your pass rush to contain him in the pocket.”
In his five games, the longtime backup has rushed 30 times for 179 yards, a 5.9-yard average. He has also completed 35 of his 63 passes for 425 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
“If you ever look at my whole career, nothing’s really come easy,” Hostetler said. “It started back in college (when he had to transfer from Penn State to West Virginia to get a chance to play).
“I just have to believe if you work hard and continue to work hard and believe in yourself, that good things will happen. That’s what’s kept me going.”