One team squeaked into the playoffs as a wild card in its final regular-season game by virtue of an overtime field goal, a favorable ricochet on an extra-point kick and an offense able to survive three lost fumbles by its star running back. The other team coasted into the postseason, clinching a division title with three games left.
The oddsmakers, however, have them favored by only 3 1/2 even with home-field advantage. But what is momentum worth? Plodding along at 6-6, the Giants won four consecutive games, by an average of 14 points, to qualify for the postseason, clinching last week against the Philadelphia Eagles on the toe of kicker Matt Bryant and the running of Tiki Barber, who balanced three fumbles with 203 yards rushing.
The 49ers, already locked in postseason position, played their final regular-season game Monday night against the St. Louis Rams as if it were an exhibition game. It turned out to be a pretty shoddy exhibition of football for San Francisco. The 49ers took a 17-0 first-half lead, but, with 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia coming out after the opening drive, the Rams came back to pull out the victory, scoring 28 fourth-quarter points to win, 31-20.
Garcia, of course, will be back in today, as will top receiver Terrell Owens, who sat out the final two regular-season games because of a groin injury.
Skepticism by the oddsmakers will fuel the 49ers. So will a desire to not only step over the Giants, whom they beat in the season opener, 16-13, but also to step out from some overwhelming shadows. Coach Steve Mariucci is constantly compared to Bill Walsh and George Seifert, Garcia to Joe Montana and Steve Young, Owens to Jerry Rice. That's what happens when you play for an organization that has won five Super Bowls.
Mariucci insists he welcomes the comparisons.
"A standard had been set ... so it gives the next people something to shoot for," the 49er coach said.
Garcia, however, would like to see a little more appreciation of the current team..
"Finishing 10-6 and being a playoff team just isn't good enough around here, and that starts to wear on you a little," Garcia said. "You're out there trying to do your job, helping a team reach a playoff position, yet it's not good enough. I mean, what do we have to do to satisfy everybody?"
He thinks he's underappreciated now? Imagine if the 49ers lose.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.