#5: January 14, 2012 – (NFC Divisional) 49ers 36 Saints 32: The BountyGate game, a game that would result in Saints coach Sean Payton getting unfairly suspended for the entire 2012 season after leaked tapes revealed Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams instructed players to injure key 49ers players, is one of the best games in NFL playoff history.
Until Jim Harbaugh arrived in the Bay Area, no one would have ever thought an Alex Smith led team would crack a list like this one. In Harbaugh’s rookie season, a nine year playoff drought would end, and Alex Smith’s career would be reborn. A 13-3 season and a division title would set up this matchup, as the 49ers and Saints would meet in the playoffs for the first time ever.
After such a long playoff drought, this game was extra important. A loss here would have made the regular season achievements seem almost like a fluke. There were still many doubters of this edition of the Niners, mainly due to Alex Smith. The first pick of the 2005 draft had been a colossal bust up until this season and many still weren’t buying that he could win a big game against an opponent like Drew Brees and the Saints. Vegas slotted New Orleans as a 3.5 favorite, even though they were the lower seeded road team, a rare scenario in the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
The Saints would battle back from an early 17-0 hole to create a tense 2nd half. Both defenses would settle in, until the final four minutes, perhaps the wildest final four minutes of any playoff game ever.
Four touchdowns and four lead changes, capped off by a Smith to Vernon Davis touchdown pass with 9 seconds left. “The Catch III” had happened, joining it’s brother “The Catch” and “The Catch II” (more on those games shortly).
The Saints would take their first lead of the game on a 44 yard catch and run by Darren Sproles. Alex Smith would then lead a quick drive back down the field, and on a 3rd and 3 would take the ball on a designed QB sweep around the left end and into the end zone, for what felt like the game winning score. Drew Brees would have other ideas, and would quickly hit Jimmy Graham deep over the middle, for a 66 yard touchdown, that DEFINITELY felt like final gut punch for the Niner faithful. Nice season with a sad ending, because there’s no way our boy Alex has another bullet in the chamber. With the Saints not only scoring, but also hitting a two point conversion, a three point deficit was now the hurdle. Smith would hit Vernon Davis for a long bomb, to get them into David Akers field goal range. On third down, with seconds remaining, the Niners eschewed a conservative run to set up a layup, game tying field goal and went for the win. Smith found Davis again over the middle for the game winning score, in a play eerily similar to the Young to Owens score in ’99 playoffs.
Davis was mobbed, the place went bananas, and an entire fan base finally accepted Alex Smith as a QB who could be trusted when it counted most.
#4: January 20, 1991 – (NFC Championship Game) Giants 15 49ers 13: We can’t ever be accused of blind homerism with this game making the top 10. This game and the Super Bowl 47 loss to Baltimore are easily the two most crushing losses in franchise history. The run for the first ever 3-peat in the Super Bowl era came to a bitter end on the games final play, and Joe Montana would take a hit so vicious he would miss the entire next season before permanently losing his job to Steve Young.
So how does a game that still stings many 49ers fans make it to #4? Simply put, this is one of the most well played football games you’ll ever see. It’s actually on iTunes as part of the “Greatest Games in Giants History” DVD set, so if you like watching the classics, this is one to make some time for.
The rosters are loaded, as are the coaching staffs. Between the two teams coaches and coordinators, you’ve got: George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Jon Gruden, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin and Romeo Crennel.
The game itself was a true heavy weight bout, played to perfection. The tackling was superb. Each team tried imposing their will on each other, as the two sides had a very different philosophy about the best way to win a football game. Few mistakes were made and when they were made, people paid. Everson Walls tried jumping an out rout to John Taylor, and it turned into a 61 yard catch and run for a touchdown.
The game would turn on the Montana injury, when he took a hit in the back from Leonard Marshall that injured his back and hand, while also giving him a severe concussion. The Giants rolled the dice soon after, on one of the gutsiest calls in playoff history, a fake punt from their own 46 yard line. The drive would end with a field goal.
Mistakes were sparse, but the biggest came on the next drive, as the only turnover of the game was committed. Roger Craig would fumble as the Niners attempted to kill the clock, the Giants would drive down and Matt Bahr converted his 5th and final field goal of the game, as the final gun went off.
As the ball sailed through the uprights, Pat Summerall let the result breathe, besides his declaration that “there will be no 3-peat.”
#3: January 3, 1999 – (NFC Wildcard Game) 49ers 30 Packers 27: Was this a great game? Oh yes. Was this an important win in the history of the franchise? Absolutely. Was this a well played game? That’s debatable.
In a game that featured seven turnovers and many dropped passes, the specifics of the game aren’t really as important as the final play and the final result. The 49ers FINALLY got one on Brett Favre and the Packers, after having their playoffs ended by Green Bay the previous three seasons.
This was yet another dragon for Steve Young to slay. After the hurdles of overtaking Joe Montana, the Dallas Cowboys and a Super Bowl title, Young was now pegged as a guy who couldn’t solve the Green Bay puzzle. There was a feeling as the game drew near, that if the Niners were eliminated by the Pack for a 4th straight year, there would be Steinbrenner-esque ramifications from the front office. No one’s job seemed safe, the whole team might get fired.
These were two very evenly matched teams in what was one of the highest profile Wild Card games in NFL history. Young and Favre both had a ring, and were at stages of their careers where they desperately wanted another. No lead grew larger than seven points in this one, as the quarterbacks mixed dazzling plays with careless plays, each throwing 2 INTs. Dorsey Levens and Garrison Hearst would each have gritty, memorable games; both eclipsed 100 yards rushing.
A late Favre to Antonio Freeman TD pass seemed to ice it. This was it, the Niners as we knew them were about to be blown up. Literally no ones job was safe, as guys on the home sideline no doubt started making offseason plans and planned to sharpen their job interview skills. But Young would take the ball, with 1:50 left on the clock, and engineer the drive of a lifetime. First J.J. Stokes for a couple first downs, then Marc Edwards converted a first down that was near disaster, after he was nearly tackled twice way behind the line of scrimmage. Jerry Rice, who had not had a catch all game, would finally get in the score book. This is where Packer fans gently remind Niner fans that Rice fumbled. Rice did fumble, but there was no replay at the time, so San Francisco kept the ball. Tough you-know-what Packer fans, the Niners were owed a couple of those from a previous screw job at Lambeau Field on a Monday night.
Then with eight seconds left, the Niners called a play that would determine the fate of an entire team. Young took the snap and after nearly stumbling during his drop back, let loose a perfect pass over the middle to Terrell Owens for a 25 yard TD pass.
Ballgame. The Catch II was born.
TO let the tears flow, maybe from joy, maybe because he got absolutely lit up by two different Packers as he brought in the game winner. Coach Steve Mariucci went nuts. Steve Young went nuts. Hell, everyone in Red & Gold lost their damn minds for a few moments. The Niners had won, finally defeating the Packers in one of the most stirring and dramatic endings to a playoff game ever.
#2: January 15, 1995 – (NFC Championship Game) 49ers 38 Cowboys 28: Take everything we said about the importance of Steve Young beating the Packers from game #3 and multiply it by…I dunno, a lot. Make no mistake, this game may have technically been the NFC Championship, but on this date at Candlestick, the Super Bowl was played.
No team was close to touching Dallas or San Francisco in 1994, as they combined for seven losses , two of which were meaningless week 17 games where starters were rested. Game #9 on this list was the prelude to this game, an Ali-Frazier type matchup.
We already discussed in the game #9 entry, but to reiterate, Dallas had defeated San Francisco in two straight NFC Championship Games, and the pressure that mounted on Steve Young to not just beat Dallas, and not just make it to the Super Bowl, but WIN a Super Bowl, was immense. To get this far for the 3rd straight season, and lose again to the same team, was unacceptable. The Niners had a great team those past two seasons, but in the 1994 offseason, they revamped the defense big time. The 7th overall pick was used on Bryant Young, one of the best defensive linemen in franchise history. In free agency, they added Rickey Jackson and Ken Norton Jr., the latter of which came over from the rival Cowboys. The big catch would happen a couple weeks into the season, when Deion Sanders joined the club on a 1 year deal, while also playing baseball.
Both teams would sprint through the regular season, with the Niners win in game #9 of our countdown being the difference maker for home field advantage. The buzz leading up to this game was like that of a Super Bowl. Everyone knew THIS was the game. A Niners win would mean a trip to the “Super Bowl”, with surprising yet undermanned San Diego lying in wait. A loss would mean that Steve Young’s Niners were the NFC’s version of the Buffalo Bills.
The game itself was one where Dallas would take a knock out punch early, and never recover. Before your pizza had arrived, it was 21-0 Niners. Three 1st quarter Cowboy turnovers were converted, at break neck speed, into three 49er touchdowns. That 21-0 hole would be the difference maker, as Dallas settled down and ended up out gaining the Niners 451 to 294, and had 10 more first downs than San Francisco for the game. With halftime 28 seconds away, Dallas had crept back into the game. It was then that Young hit Rice for a 28 yard TD pass, with Kevin Smith in coverage, for what would turn out to be a hugely important score.. Smith had once declared he “owned” Jerry Rice. Those words were never forgotten, as Rice and Young picked on Smith whenever they had the chance for the rest of his career.
A late Young rushing TD iced the game, as the 4th quarter slowly became a victory lap for the Niners. Speaking of victory laps, Steve Young literally took one after the game. As the FOX cameras rolled a few moments after the games conclusion, Young took a full lap around Candlestick. In full uniform, and with a ball clutched under his arm for some reason, he ran around like a mad man while he fist pumped to the crowd. Madden and Summerall narrated the events, as an exuberant Young jumped over barrier gates and took out a couple poor cameramen, who tried to keep up with the crafty left-hander. It was a refreshing scene, to watch an athlete who had just achieved the biggest triumph of his career, let it all hang out in front of 69,000 fans and a national television audience.
Two weeks later, the 49ers would trounce San Diego in Super Bowl 29, by the score of 49-26. Young would throw a Super Bowl record six touchdowns and be named the games MVP.
Game #1: January 10, 1982 – (NFC Championship Game) 49ers 28 Cowboys 27: The granddaddy of them all. The game that set the path for two franchises for the rest of the 1980’s. The 3rd game on this list that involves the Dallas Cowboys.
A play that will be replayed during the NFL Playoffs until Roger Goddell finally runs the league into the ground and the NFL doesn’t exist anymore.
The Niners entered the 1981 season as one of the worst franchises in the NFL. The Cowboys came in as the class of the league, making nine of the previous twelve NFC Championship Games. In 1980, the Cowboys had beaten the 49ers 59-14, but this season San Francisco turned the tables, with a 45-14 blowout at Candlestick. Cowboy players would claim it was a fluke, and weren’t worried about a rematch the upstart 49ers. They would get that rematch in the NFC Championship Game a couple months later. A close, back and forth game, would come down to a one final drive. Joe Montana would lead the Niners 89 yards on 14 plays, capped off with a play known simply as “The Catch”.
With 58 seconds left in the game, down six and facing 3rd down, Montana took the snap and rolled to his right. Avoiding several Dallas defenders, including Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Montana finally lofted the ball towards the back right corner of the end zone. Perhaps he was trying to throw it away, although he swears he wasn’t. Dwight Clark has also claimed since this day that it wasn’t a throwaway. It would be Clark who would leap for the pass, snatch it out of the air, and tap both feet down for a dramatic go ahead touch down.
Dallas actually had the ball one last time in this game, and after almost converting a long catch and run touch down by Drew Pearson, would turn the ball over two plays later on a fumble by quarterback Danny White.
The Niners would win their first Super Bowl in their next game, setting them on a course of complete domination through the 1980’s and into the early 90’s, where they’d encounter a new Dallas dynasty that would rekindle the rivalry for several years. Once the run that Bill Walsh started and George Seifert took over, was complete, the Niners would have five Vince Lombardi trophies to their name over a 13 year span.
Tom Landry would coach the Cowboys through the darkness of the 1980’s, only winning two more playoff games (both in the strike shortened ’82 season). The team would slowly dissolve, with disappointing seasons piling up. Jerry Jones would eventually buy the team and fire Landry, hiring Jimmy Johnson from the University of Miami (FL) to replace him.
Two franchises, set on completely different courses, as the result of one game and one play.