SAN FRANCISCO -- It was a sequence of exceptional violence, starting with Jeff Hostetler's lower left leg being forced to go in a direction lower legs aren't meant to go, and ending with Joe Montana dragging himself to the sideline, sternum bruised, right hand broken. It's safe to say Montana was a little disoriented; he looked like Floyd Patterson trying to find the neutral corner after being knocked down a seventh time by Ingemar Johansson.

The New York Giants' defense in the era of LT has always believed in an eye for an eye. And when Hostetler was bent grotesquely by a Jim Burt hit with 12 minutes to play -- a cheap shot, the Giants called it -- the indomitable LT himself went into a rage. "We know the way Burt plays," Lawrence Taylor said. "He tends to duck down and go for the knees and we feel that's what he did to Hoss."

LT yelled only at Burt, his former teammate, but everybody heard: "That was a cheap shot. If that's the way you want to play, somebody else is going to lose a quarterback too."

On the very next series, LT and Leonard Marshall chased down Montana on third and nine. Montana was so preoccupied with slipping Taylor's grasp he never saw Marshall coming. "Blind side," Marshall said. "He never had a chance. He sort of cringed. I knew he was hurt. I don't go out to hurt anybody. How is he? I hope he's fine."

With 9:41 left in one of the most hellishly played games imaginable, Montana was out and the Giants were in the Super Bowl. "And we did it clean," LT added.

The shot may have been clean, but the work itself was dirty.

"Pressure Joe, hold them, get a field goal if we can," is how Taylor described this classic. Or as Bill Parcells said: "They hit us, we hit them. They got great players, we got great players. You saw a great game."

There were so many story lines, almost too many. Matt Bahr, a brilliant but strange little man who started his career in the '70s replacing Roy Gerela for the final Steelers championship team, kicked five of six field goals and accounted for all the Giants' points, including the game-winner with 0:00 on the clock.

"It was the kick of his life," Parcells said. "That's why I gave him the game ball."

Linebacker-upback Gary Reasons, who had come close several times in the first half to calling that fake punt, saved it for when the Giants were frantic, desperate for any way to move the ball. "The way they were setting up their punt returns {for John Taylor} left a big hole," he said. "From there, my blinding speed just took over. There were a number of times I could have optioned to call it, but the opportunity just wasn't right."

It was on fourth and two, after Michael Carter had swallowed whole O.J. Anderson on a third-and-one run for a loss of one. Reasons took the direct snap and went 30 yards to set up the field goal that got the Giants within 13-12. "If you've got something that can work," he said, "why leave it in the playbook."

Every day brings something new and exciting for Hostetler, now adding a dash of violet to the Giants' otherwise gray offense.

The fact that Hostetler could come back at all -- he missed just three plays -- following an injury that looked Theismannesque was stunning in itself. On his second play after returning, he avoided Kevin Fagan's sack and raced six yards to near midfield.

On the next series, after Roger Craig's disastrous fumble, Hostetler ran away from Charles Haley and threw 19 yards on the dead run to Mark Bavaro for a critical gain before the two-minute warning. The Niners had that play double-covered. If the Giants have to go with Matt Cavanaugh the rest of the way, they lose.

Niners linebacker Bill Romanowski was still shaking his head an hour after the game. "Jeff played the position today," he said, "like he was a linebacker. He was spectacular. He's got a lot of guts."

Despite winning such an extraordinary game, the Giants weren't particularly giddy after the initial euphoria. They've been there. This was a combative, slightly snide, you-fools-shouldn't-have-counted-us-out approach. "Weren't they already in the Super Bowl?" Marshall asked. "What did we have to lose?"

And LT said: "Millions and millions and millions of people are shocked." (Presumably, he was including one buffoon who said pompously, in print no less, that the Giants were a lock to lose by 20.)

Nobody was more shocked than the Niners, who have lost five playoff games since 1981, three to the Giants. "I've never heard this locker room quieter than it was after the game," linebacker Michael Walter said. "The only noise in here was the CBS crew whispering as they set up their cameras. We were that close. . . . When you're that close, you go back and look at every play where they got one more yard than they should have."

For too long, the game was nearly an afterthought for reasons far beyond anything football players can control. Even here at Candlestick Park, in the stands and the press box, the talk was of Iraqi Scuds and Patriot interceptors. The pictures on CNN of prisoners and missile hits were so much more riveting than anything a football game ever could offer.

But in the end, because great players like LT and John Taylor worked their magic, the action in Candlestick became compelling too.

If the NFL hoped for a diversion, it got that and so much more.