New York Giant guard Rich Seubert lay stretched out on the grass at 3Com Park. His teammates were yelling "Interference." The San Francisco 49ers were screaming "Illegal man." The officials were huddling. The crowd was hushed.
Had the 49ers pulled off the second-greatest postseason comeback in NFL history after falling behind by 24 points in the third quarter of Sunday's NFC wild-card game, or was there still more football to be played?
The clock had run out of seconds. But a game still hung in the balance. And a season.
And then came the signal, the signal that meant euphoria for the 49ers and a trip to Tampa Bay next Sunday for a divisional game, the signal that meant heartbreak for the Giants and a final journey home.
Seubert was indeed downfield illegally.
Game to the 49ers, 39-38.
There was bedlam in the stadium. Fans ran onto the field. Coach Steve Mariucci saluted the crowd. Terrell Owens broke into a victory dance.
And the Giants trudged off the field, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
"When you're down, 38-14," Mariucci said, "it's easy to throw in the towel, unless you're a 49er. But momentum was wearing a red jersey today."
Not in the first half. With New York quarterback Kerry Collins throwing (he finished the day 29 for 43 for 342 yards and four touchdowns) and Amani Toomer catching (eight receptions for 136 yards and three touchdowns) and Tiki Barber running (26 carries for 115 yards and a touchdown), there was barely a red jersey to be found in the Giants' path.
It was the 49ers who scored first Sunday, on their first play from scrimmage. Starting at his 24-yard line, quarterback Jeff Garcia hit Owens 10 yards downfield. Cornerback Will Allen came up to wrap his arms around the 49er receiver, but Owens spun away as if he had grease on his body and raced to the end zone, completing a 76-yard play.
But then, it was all Giants.
Collins hit Toomer with a 12-yard touchdown pass and Jeremy Shockey with a two-yarder. Following a one-yard scoring run by San Francisco's Kevan Barlow, the Giants came back with two more Collins-to-Toomer scores, one for eight yards and one for 24.
Giants 28, 49ers 14 at the half.
In the San Francisco locker room, a new voice was heard. Owens has made a career of talking trash on the field, but he had been relatively silent in the locker room.
"Something had to be said. Something had to be done," said Owens.
He asked his teammates if they were to be contenders or pretenders.
"You could just feel how he felt," said linebacker Julian Peterson.
Owens' effect on the team wasn't immediately obvious.
In the third quarter, New York kept right on churning, scoring twice more, on a six-yard run by Barber and a 21-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
But Bryant's three-pointer was a consolation prize after Shockey dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone.
Rather than closing the door on the 49ers, they had left it open. Just a crack, leaving just a glint of hope, because the score still stood at 38-14.
Fans began leaving 3Com. Elimination hovered in the air. Visions of Joe Montana and Steve Young and Jerry Rice reborn began to dissolve. But then Garcia and Owens began to fill those big shoes, began to duplicate the stirring performances of their predecessors.
Garcia hit Owens, who finished with nine catches for 177 yards, on a 26-yard touchdown pass and came back to Owens, connecting on the two-point conversion.
Giants 38, 49ers 22 with 2:03 to play in the third quarter.
Garcia tucked the ball under his arm and raced into the end zone from 14 yards, then hit Owens again on the two-point conversion.
Giants 38, 49ers 30 with 14:55 to play.
San Francisco's Jeff Chandler kicked a 25-yard field goal.
Giants 38, 49ers 33 with 7:49 to play.
Finally, with a minute to play, Garcia, who completed 27 of 44 for 331 yards and three touchdowns, completed the comeback.
He faded back from the New York 13-yard line and looked to Owens. Covered. Looked to J.J. Stokes. Covered.
Garcia spotted his third option, Tai Streets, at the goal line and hit him with the pass that pushed San Francisco ahead.
But it wasn't over.
New York drove to the San Francisco 23-yard line and, with six seconds left, Bryant lined up for a 41-yard field-goal attempt. Long snapper Trey Junkin, filling in for injured Dan O'Leary, made a bad snap. Holder Matt Allen picked up the ball and roamed to his right, looking for someone. Anyone.
He threw a wild pass in the general direction of Seubert, who was knocked over in the scramble for the ball, but was penalized for being downfield.
"I am not going to get over this one for awhile," said Giant Coach Jim Fassel.
Nor will anyone else who spent a wild, improbable afternoon at 3Com Park.
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Down but Not Out
*--* Greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history: 32 Buffalo trailed Houston, 35-3, in third quarter, won game in overtime, 41-38 (Jan. 3, 1993, AFC first round) 24 San Francisco trailed N.Y. Giants, 38-14, in third quarter, won game, 39-38 (Jan. 5, 2003, NFC first round) 20 Detroit trailed San Francisco, 27-7, in third quarter, won game, 31-27 (Dec. 22, 1957, conference playoff) 18 Dallas trailed San Francisco, 21-3, in second quarter, won game, 30-28 (Dec. 23, 1972, NFC divisional playoff game) 18 Miami trailed Cleveland, 21-3, in third quarter, won game, 24-21 (Jan. 4, 1986, AFC divisional playoff game)