Their road from poverty to parity to the playoffs had just turned into a cul de sac.

Cornerback Terry Jackson wiped the sweat off his brow and the mud off his cleats. However, he could not wipe away San Francisco 38, New York Giants 24.

"At least we got the monkey off our backs this year. No one will laugh at us any more," Jackson began in the din and the depression of his crowded Giants dressing room. Jackson has been with the Giants only four years, but he said, "I still feel like one of the old guys."

Because most of them are young, the New York Giants think their road from poverty dates back but seven weeks. The team was 5-6 then. They proceeded to win five of six games, going from wild to wild card.

"We beat Dallas and Philly. That should mean something," Jackson said. His team did beat Dallas, 13-10, in overtime in the regular season finale to make the playoffs. Then the Giants beat Philadelphia, 27-21, in the playoff opener.

"I see progress," Jackson said. "We crossed the hump that has been blocking the New York Giants for a long time."

The road from poverty dates back to 1964. It has been 18 years since the Giants lost to Chicago, 14-10, in the 1963 NFL championship game. They hadn't been in the playoffs since. The team record since then is 94-164-4.

One of the major reasons the Giants were stopped today was San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana, who had one of the best passing games of his three-year career with 304 yards and two touchdowns.

"They played a lot of zone defense," Montana said. "I guess I've just seen enough of it this year."

Montana's performance has improved with almost every game. His coach, Bill Walsh, cited Montana's development as the key to the victory, as well as the entire season for the 49ers (14-3).

"Joe Montana played exceptional football today," Walsh said. "He made one mistake (a third-quarter interception) and he'll have to deal with that in his own way. Joe just seems to be getting better each week."

Still, linebacker Harry Carson, who has been with the Giants for six years and three coaches, said: "We hadn't been under pressure all year like we were today. We had to stick together all season. We could have pointed fingers when things were going bad, but we hung together."

Scott Brunner, the second-year quarterback who completed 16 of 37 for 290 yards and three touchdowns, his second straight week with three scoring passes, said, "We had been doing everything it takes to win the last few weeks. When we needed to do something, we did it. Today we just didn't do it."

Brunner added, "We have had fans who have stood with us for 18 years. We have been sold out at home for a long time. With all of those years of losing, they were not ashamed. They stood with us. So how can we be ashamed now?"

New York Coach Ray Perkins, in his third year, seemed to think this loss a bit more significant than the 22 wins and 21 other losses his Giant teams have endured. "Right now, I'm proud of the season, but I'm disappointed with today," he said. "Everybody on our team should be. If they are not, there is something very wrong."

Joe Danelo was disappointed with today. He has been New York's kicker for the six seasons. Today, just when his team was at the post, Danelo's 21-yard field goal attempt hit the post--a kick late in the third quarter that could have made the game 24-20. "The missed field goal hurt our momentum," Brunner said.

Danelo, who just finished his best NFL regular season, scoring 103 points (24 of 38 field goals and all 31 extra-point attempts), said, "The Giants will be tough next year."

Then he paused and added, "I just hope that I'm a part of it."