Santa Clara, Calif. • Erik Howard’s memories of the play remain vivid more than two decades later.
The former Giant will never forget fighting through blockers to knock the ball out of Roger Craig’s hands, forcing the fumble that helped lead New York to its second Super Bowl title and ended the San Francisco 49ers’ quest for a third straight championship.
That play from the NFC championship game on Jan. 20, 1991, is among the most famous between the teams and is one of many being recalled leading into Sunday’s conference title game.
But it is far from the only postseason moment the teams share. The Giants and 49ers met six times in the playoffs between the 1981 and ‘94 seasons with the victor going on to win the Super Bowl in four of those cases.
The rivalry featured Hall of Fame players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott on San Francisco, and Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson for the Giants.
There were great plays and memorable moments through the years, but the most famous came in the only previous conference championship game between these teams following the 1990 season.
“You were playing legends: Montana and Jerry Rice and those guys,” Howard said. “That team was always at the top of the league in the standings. We knew those would be big, exciting games. Those were the games that you live for. You carry them with you forever.”
The 49ers were shooting for a third straight Super Bowl title that season, with the Giants providing the stiffest obstacle. Both teams started the year 10-0 before losing the week before a highly anticipated Monday night matchup. The 49ers won that game 7-3 at Candlestick Park, earning them home-field advantage for the rematch seven weeks later.
San Francisco led that game 13-9 early in the fourth quarter before Leonard Marshall knocked out Montana with a crushing hit from behind. Gary Reasons then had a 30-yard run on a fake punt to set up Matt Bahr’s fourth field goal to make it 13-12.
The 49ers just needed to run out the clock to seal the win. But on a first-and-10 from the Giants 40 with less than 3 minutes to go, Craig ran up the middle and Howard shed his blockers and got his helmet on the ball. It popped loose and Taylor recovered at the New York 43 with 2:36 to go.
“The thing I remember the most was the silence was deafening in the crowd,” Howard said. “It was so loud in there and the fans were so excited. The Super Bowl was in their grasp. Then to all of a sudden have a turnover at that stage of the game and it’s over. It’s such a vivid memory.”
Seven plays later, Bahr kicked a 43-yard field goal as time expired, sending the Giants to a Super Bowl they won 20-19 over Buffalo.
“I got over that on that same day,” Craig said this week. “It was no big deal. It was just a loss that we had. It wasn’t meant to be for us to go to the championship that year. The defense made a good play on the ball. They had a perfect hit. It doesn’t really change your life. I’m too positive a person to let something like that dictate your life.”
Steve Young, who replaced Montana in that game, said there was talk about whether they should hand the ball to Craig or run a bootleg. They went with the handoff.
“Then in the end, we obviously called the running play,” he said. “And forever more, whoever won the discussion, or what to do, was on the hook.”
Montana never started another game for the 49ers, missing most of the next two seasons with injuries and then leaving to finish his career in Kansas City.
Lott and Craig also left after that season, and by the time the 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl title following the 1994 season, it was a very different roster.
“It was kind of the end of that era to a certain degree,” former Niners offensive lineman Guy McIntyre said. “Those guys were the ones that started it all when you think about it.”
The Niners had gotten the better of the Giants earlier in the rivalry, winning the first playoff game of the Bill Walsh era 38-24 following the 1981 season, one week before Dwight Clark made “The Catch.”
The playoff run to San Francisco’s second title following the 1984 season also started with a win over the Giants, 21-10.
The Giants eliminated the 49ers in the wild-card round with a 17-3 win the following season and then launched their own Super Bowl run with a division-round win over San Francisco the next year.
With Jim Burt knocking out Montana with a hard hit late in the first half on a pass that Taylor intercepted and ran back 34 yards for a score, New York won 49-3 on the way to its first Super Bowl win. Rice made the most memorable gaffe of his career in that game when he dropped the ball for a fumble on the way to what seemed like an early touchdown.
The 49ers also beat the Giants 44-3 following the 1993 season in what proved to be the final career game for Phil Simms and Taylor.
“You know there are a lot of memories,” Simms said of the rivalry. “They went from maybe the greatest to the worst in lots of ways. The games were awesome.”
The teams have met only one time in the postseason since that run of matchups ended. In January 2003, the 49ers fell behind the Giants 38-14 late in the third quarter.
But Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens led San Francisco on an epic comeback with the 49ers taking a 39-38 lead on Garcia’s 13-yard TD pass to Tai Streets with 1 minute remaining.
“It was just one of those games where once one thing went wrong, they all went wrong,” said former defensive end Michael Strahan, who will be on hand Sunday as an analyst on Fox’s pregame show.
It only got worse. The Giants were in prime position to win the game, driving to the San Francisco 23 with just 6 seconds remaining.
But Trey Junkin, signed earlier that week, made his second bad snap of the game and holder Matt Allen couldn’t handle it. Allen then threw the ball down field to offensive lineman Rich Seubert, who was an eligible receiver on the play.
Defensive end Chike Okeafor pulled Seubert down on the play, but the officials did not call pass interference because they apparently forgot Seubert was an eligible receiver.
So instead of having a second shot at the field goal, the game ended with the Niners winning. The league later admitted its error, but it came too late for the Giants.
“What good did that do,” Strahan said. “That’s one of those games that’s infamous for the drama in it.”