SAN FRANCISCO, DEC. 3 -- The unexpected happened tonight. The 49ers vs. the Giants, a game that was supposed to be full of offense, all flash-and-dash, was more bump-and-grind. This was about defense. Hard-core, straight-up defense with San Francisco coming out on top, and with the NFL's best record by a 7-3 count.

The combined 10 points made it the lowest-scoring game in the league all season. And they were packed into a two-minute span shortly before halftime, a 23-yard touchdown pass from Joe Montana to John Taylor answering a 20-yard field goal by Matt Bahr.

Montana and New York's Phil Simms managed fairly paltry passing yardage. Montana's numbers were 12 of 29 for 152 yards; Simms was 14 of 31 for 153.

Jerry Rice, Mr. Offense, had only one 13-yard catch.

It was the 49ers' defense that came up with the decisive effort, a goal-line stand with 3:59 left in the game before a national televison audience and 66,092 at Candlestick Park, the 49ers' largest crowd ever.

The game did live up to expectations, although it wasn't pretty. And while doubters stood ready to pounce on the two-time defending Super Bowl champions if they had lost, the 49ers stood fast -- truly a team that can rapidly adapt. If the offense isn't there, go to the defense.

The critical play came when Giants Coach Bill Parcells decided to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal at the San Francisco 9 after safety Ronnie Lott separated tight end Mark Bavaro from a would-be goal-line catch as the game clock wound down to four minutes. Simms threw for wide receiver Lionel Manuel, who was open for a brief second in the end zone on a slant pattern. But the ball sailed wide behind him. Credit left cornerback Darryl Pollard with the saving deflection.

Parcells defended his decision not to go for a field goal to get within one point, noting that the 49ers are capable of scoring any time. Nevertheless the fourth-down decision was unusual, since San Francisco had struggled on offense all game and the Giants had two timeouts stored.

"I didn't know whether we'd get the ball back again or not," Parcells said. "They are a good team with a powerful offense. They can score any time they have the ball. I thought we should take our shot right there."

Said Giants cornerback Everson Walls: "We've been going for those all year long. That's been our trademark. This isn't the time for us to start second-guessing."

The Giants eventually got the ball back at their 45 with 36 seconds left and no timeouts. Simms passed to Dave Meggett for seven yards, then for 10, then threw into the ground to stop the clock.

The final play of the game, though, was fitting: Simms sacked by end Kevin Fagan.

So the 49ers are 11-1 and on the inside track to home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They weren't enamored of the idea of visiting Giants Stadium in January.

The Giants, losers of two in a row, are 10-2. They have clinched a wild-card spot but were unable to lock up the NFC East.

Where was the offense? Rice, who leads the NFC in receiving with 73 catches for 1,124 yards, didn't have his reception until 12:22 in the third period. San Francisco running back Roger Craig -- who temporarily left the game with a bruised right hip -- had only nine carries for 21 yards.

While neither quarterback threw an interception each was erratic and seemed to have lost his touch for the night. Montana never was sacked, though, and Simms went down four times.

The Giants came out with a nickel defensive package that sometimes featured seven backs. It was the alignment the Los Angeles Rams used to beat the 49ers, 28-17, a week ago. But San Francisco was expecting it.

"I wanted to go through the early reads and quickly get rid of the ball," said Montana. "I was throwing balls early instead of going to the back side. We didn't want to give them the big plays."

The first period was very un-49ers-like. They had just nine yards rushing to New York's 25. Defense dominated, as Simms and Montana combined for five completed passes.

New York's offense was out in four plays on its first possession of the second period. San Francisco couldn't overcome the Giants' defense, and Mike Cofer's 43-yard field goal attempt was as flat and missed wide left.

But New York picked up the pace on offense. Bavaro caught a 23-yard pass to the 49ers 29 after linebacker Charles Haley fell trying to cover him. New York worked its way to the 3, where Ottis Anderson was stopped for no gain up the middle. Bahr easily made a 20-yard field goal with 3:29 left in the half to end a 54-yard, 12-play drive.

With little time left, trailing, the 49ers were in a comfortable spot. Craig took a short pass from Montana and turned it into a long gain, 31 yards, to the Giants 23. The next play Montana overthrew Taylor. But on the next, he found him in the end zone, a step ahead of cornerback Mark Collins, and zipped the ball in.

Three plays, 7-3 halftime lead.

And not a peep from Rice.

"Jerry is like everybody else," Walls said. "He is going to have a slow day every once in a while."

With Craig hobbled, the 49ers turned to Dexter Carter after their goal-line stand. Carter got the ball three out of their five plays but finally, on a third-and-four when Carter was scrambling for a huge gap on the right side, Lawrence Taylor tripped him up for just a one-yard gain.

Taylor, the Giants' all-pro linebacker, finished with three tackles total.

"This is as great a game as I've ever been a part of," said fellow New York linebacker Gary Reasons. "But we're trying to win our division. That's the main thing."

"Did the game live up to its billing?" 49ers running back Harry Sydney was asked, and answered: "I would have to say it did."