49ers 39, Giants 38

With his San Francisco 49ers trailing by an astonishing 24 points late in the third quarter, Coach Steve Mariucci was plotting two-point conversion plays. He figured his team would need three of them. "We were thinking three eights," he said later.

The 49ers went to their two-minute, no-huddle offense and began attacking the New York Giants and their big lead. Almost unthinkably, Jeff Garcia passed, ran and ultimately led San Francisco to three touchdowns, a field goal, and a 39-38 NFC playoff victory at Candlestick Park that left the Giants numb.

After Garcia's 13-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets with one minute to play put the 49ers ahead by a single point, the Giants calmly and quickly moved into position to kick a 41-yard game-winning field goal with six seconds left, and on third down. But Trey Junkin's snap rolled back to the holder, punter Matt Allen, and place kicker Matt Bryant never got to swing his right leg. Once gathering the ball, Allen could have spiked it to give his team a chance to try the kick again, on fourth down. But Allen attempted to throw the ball downfield, as ineligible Giants offensive linemen ran toward the goal line, earning the Giants a penalty, which in the last 10 seconds ends any game.

The 49ers, as a result, will now make the trip to Tampa to play the Buccaneers next Sunday, while the Giants attempt to make sense of a most improbable defeat, starting with the second bad snap on a field goal attempt in the second half.

Bryant missed a 42-yarder earlier with the aid of a low snap, both from the newly signed and nearly retired 41-year-old Junkin, who was playing only because of an injury to New York's regular long snapper, Dan O'Leary.

"It's like a hitter at the plate with two outs in the ninth inning and the runner gets thrown out trying to steal second," Bryant said of the aborted field goal attempt. "It takes the bat right out of your hands. That's what it felt like for me today."

No doubt, Coach Jim Fassel, who had the Midas touch for weeks and weeks as the Giants stormed from a record of 3-4 into the playoffs, felt worse. "I'm not getting over this one for a while," he said.

Added Giants quarterback Kerry Collins: "This is as tough as it can get. When it happens like that . . . man this is tough."

For nearly three-quarters of the game, there was simply no hint the Giants would be involved in one of the NFL's most dramatic and fascinating games. Yes, the 49ers took the lead, 7-0, on Garcia's 76-yard touchdown pass-and-run to Terrell Owens five minutes into the game. But the Giants' Collins threw a touchdown pass to Amani Toomer, another to Jeremy Shockey, and two more to Toomer. The Giants kept picking on cornerback Ahmed Plummer who said kind words from his teammates, "helped me, because as a cornerback, it's so easy to lose your confidence and I was on the verge."

Furthermore, the Giants were keeping the 49ers' offense off the field because Tiki Barber was able to rush 26 times for 115 yards and a touchdown. The lead might have reached 41-14 had Shockey been able to hold a pass in the end zone with 4 minutes 27 seconds left in the third quarter. Still, a 38-14 lead seemed insurmountable for the 49ers who have struggled in recent weeks.

"It should never have come to that," Collins (29 of 43 for 342 yards, four touchdowns and one interception) said of Shockey's inability to hold on to the pass in the end zone. "It should never have come to that either," the quarterback said of the aborted field goal.

Of course, a comeback of this magnitude has so many story lines; some won't trickle out for days. Owens was his usual fabulous and infuriating self, catching nine passes for 177 yards, two touchdowns and two extra points, then nearly costing his team the game in the final minutes by committing two reckless 15-yard penalties. The Giants, who will be haunted by this loss in much the same way the old Houston Oilers needed a franchise relocation to escape losing to the Buffalo Bills after leading 35-3 on Jan. 3, 1993, did so many things wrong. Collins said he and the Giants never felt so comfortable that they backed off. But the 49ers players thought the Giants did get soft on defense, and stopped attacking as New York had the first three quarters.

Even so, the Niners, in those last 19 minutes, had to do virtually everything right.

"I think by doing the two-minute offense [late in the third quarter] we started to give ourselves an opportunity to get into a rhythm, to get into a position to allow our guys to make plays," Garcia said. "It was one play after the next of guys stepping up and playing ball."

San Francisco's Jeff Garcia exults after 14-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run. "It was one play after the next of guys stepping up and playing ball," Garcia said of team's rally. The Giants helped. Tai Streets rolls into end zone with last-minute, game-winning touchdown catch. San Francisco rallied from 24 points down, will face Buccaneers in Tampa on Sunday.