If only the San Francisco 49ers started even.

Today, that is the lament of the New York Giants, who gave up 14 points in the first seven minutes and ended up losing 21-10, Saturday in an NFC semifinal.

"They can play with a 14-point lead," Giants running back Rob Carpenter said. "Anyone can."

Carpenter was asked after the game what he thought of the 49ers, who will host the NFC championship game Sunday at Candlestick Park against the Chicago Bears.

"I wasn't impressed with them at all," he said. "They are a good football team, but it was our mistakes that beat us today. Once we settled down and they had to get more conservative, we kept driving the length of the field on them."

In the 53 minutes that remained after the 49ers' start, the Giants "won," 10-7.

However, the Giants relied on 49ers mistakes for their points. New York's field goal was set up by an interception and the touchdown was a 14-yard interception return by linebacker Harry Carson.

The funny thing about having the best record in the NFL -- which San Francisco does at 16-1 -- is that any kind of victory is not good enough.

A lackluster 21-10 victory against a wild-card team? Come on. Something must be wrong.

"If we weren't 16-1, people wouldn't ask us these questions," tight end Russ Francis said. "We were sharp enough to win. They played darn well against us."

But won't someone play even better? Carpenter says yes. "In one of their next two games, they are going to have to go head-to-head with someone from the first quarter on," he said. "They haven't been pressured all four quarters this year."

Pittsburgh, the only team to beat the 49ers this year, might disagree.

The 49ers expected before the Washington-Chicago game that they would be playing the Redskins.

"I imagine we will play Washington, but if we don't play better than we did today, it won't make much difference," cornerback Eric Wright said. "Unless we play better, all-around football next week, we'll be a forlorn team watching somebody else play in the Super Bowl."

Wright said the Bears will be a little easier to prepare for than the Redskins because the 49ers already have. Last week, anticipating a victory by the Los Angeles Rams over the Giants, the 49ers studied the Bears, not the Giants.

"From a defensive standpoint, we might have an edge if we played Chicago," Wright said."We know what they're going to do."

The Giants left foggy Candlestick with bittersweet feelings.

"We can't be satisfied with mediocrity," offensive guard Brad Benson said. But, said Coach Bill Parcells, who turned around the Giants in two years, "I'm proud. We're going to work our butt off and then get back here (the playoffs)."

The better team won. "Our performance wasn't good enough to beat them," Benson said. "You can't fall behind against them and hope to win. You play right into their hands when you're forced to throw the ball. You've got to keep their defense off balance but we weren't able to do that often enough."

The 49ers didn't mind being tested. "I did feel that the layoff affected us," defensive end Dwaine Board said. "It was like everything was going in slow motion."