SAN FRANCISCO, JAN. 20 -- Threepeat is over for Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, ended by a brutal New York Giants defense that shattered the 49ers' hopes as well as their bones today in the NFC championship game at Candlestick Park.
It is the Giants who will represent the National Conference in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa next Sunday, after Matt Bahr kicked his fifth field goal, a 42-yarder as time expired to give New York a 15-13 triumph. The Giants will play the surging Buffalo Bills, who demolished the Los Angeles Raiders, 51-3, in the AFC title game. Assuredly all this week people will be talking of how the Bills are the AFC's first legitimate threat to the NFC in years.
But before thinking about Buffalo, which beat them, 17-13, in a December regular season game in the Meadowlands, the Giants would like to savor today's beauty, all the more precious since it happened before 65,750 screaming 49ers fans, denied a chance to see their team become the first to win three consecutive Super Bowls. Asked what he thought "threepeat" meant, Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor said, "It means they have to start all over."
"We let the chance to win three straight slip through our fingers," said 49ers linebacker Keith DeLong. "It will be sometime before anyone gets in a position to do this again."
Bahr's winning kick was set up when 49ers running back Roger Craig was hit by nose tackle Erik Howard and fumbled after taking a handoff from backup quarterback Steve Young. Taylor recovered at the Giants 43 with 2:36 left.
Young was in the game -- and had the 49ers driving -- because the nonpareil Montana was knocked out earlier in the fourth quarter after taking a hit from end Leonard Marshall. Montana suffered a bruised sternum and broken right hand that would have kept him from playing in the Super Bowl.
New York quarterback Jeff Hostetler, by now getting used to being injured Phil Simms's stand-in, also was hurt in the final period, hit in the left knee by nose tackle Jim Burt -- a former Giant -- but returned soon after No. 3 Matt Cavanaugh filled in for a few downs.
Before and during the game there was a reminder for 49ers and Giants fans that America is at war, as about 50 protesters demonstrated just outside Candlestick Park. They handed out flyers and said things such as "Go peace, go 49ers" and "Touchdown for peace."
Inside, there was football. The 49ers had 240 yards of offense, the same total they had in the Dec. 3 game against the Giants at Candlestick Park, won by San Francisco, 7-3. The Giants -- still without a touchdown for their two games here -- had 311 yards today, but more important, converted 40 percent of their third downs (six of 15) as compared with the 49ers' dismal 13 percent (one of eight).
And Hostetler went 15 for 27 passing for 176 yards and, most important, no interceptions. Montana hit 17 of his first 21, ending 18 of 26 for 190 yards.
Also, New York controlled both lines of scrimmage, rushing for 152 yards. Ottis Anderson ran for more yards (67) than the entire San Francisco team.
Bahr broke an NFC championship game record with his five field goals (Washington Redskin Curt Knight kicked four against Dallas in 1972). He made kicks of 28, 42, 46, 38 and 42 yards. His 46-yarder made it 13-9 after a 61-yard touchdown catch by San Francisco's John Taylor had broken a 6-6 tie. Bahr's only miss was wide left from 37 yards. His game-winner just stayed inside the left upright.
On offense and special teams the 49ers did not play like the 49ers. They made crucial mistakes: Craig fumbled late in the game; a 30-yard run by New York upback Gary Reasons on a fake punt led to a field goal that made it 13-12; and perhaps most devastating of all, the 49ers' offensive line allowed Montana to get hit all day, with the one by Marshall with 9:41 left hurting the most.
Montana faced third down at his 23-yard line. With outside pressure from linebacker Taylor, Montana stepped inside, only to be pummeled from behind by Marshall. The ball popped loose and was recovered by 49ers tackle Steve Wallace, but Montana got up dazed.
After the game Montana mostly ducked reporters, saying only a few words. Waiting in the training area he whispered that his arm "was feeling better. I guess we'll see.
"I still don't know what happened," he said later. "I don't want to sound like a coach, but I have to look at the video. I don't think it was the initial hit. I think it was the ground. . . . I'm still having a tough time breathing deeply."
"We hit Montana clean and hard again and again," Taylor said.
The hit was the second in an incredible spurt of violence. Two minutes 26 seconds earlier Hostetler was hit in the knee by Burt after completing a 12-yard pass. The knee was hyperextended, but Hostetler returned one series later.
Several Giants, such as Marshall, thought the shot by their former teammate, Burt, was a dirty one. Burt would not talk to reporters.
"He really went after Jeff to hurt him," Marshall said.
"I just got hit in the knee," said Hostetler, 4-0 since replacing Simms Dec. 15. "It was bothering me a lot for a while. The pain subsided a little bit more. If the knee was unstable, it probably would have kept me out of the game."
But it didn't, and Hostetler came back to lead the Giants to their winning field goal. He can thank Craig.
There has been talk all year that Craig is losing the spice that made him one of the best all-purpose backs ever, and his fumble will only fuel the discussion.
The 49ers, nursing a 13-12 lead and trying to run out the clock, handed the ball to Craig. As he hit the line of scrimmage, the ball began to slip out of his hands. Just as he tried to secure it, Howard hit him. The ball popped into Taylor's grasp and he collared it at the New York 43.
"It's an unfortunate thing," Craig said. "I don't know what happened. It hurts really bad. I made a lot of foolish mistakes. All I know is that I hit the hole. . . . The ball came out. It's hard to say what happened."
Hostetler's first pass after his injury was a 19-yard peg to tight end Mark Bavaro (five catches, 54 yards) while rolling right from pressure. Two plays later, again rolling right, he hit wide receiver Stephen Baker for 13 yards, moving the Giants to the 30. Four plays later, with Hostetler holding, Bahr made the winning field goal.
"You have to give him a lot of credit for leading them on the drive," said 49ers safety Ronnie Lott of Hostetler. "He's obviously tough to bounce right back after that hit."
The question now becomes, can the 49ers bounce back? Wide receiver Jerry Rice thinks so. As he walked by Simms after the game, he said to him, "Next year, about this time, I'll see you again."