16 January 2012

Stage is set for another playoff thriller at Candlestick

Matt Bahr
I’ve been a New York Giants fan pretty much since I can remember, and since I’m only 28, that means I’m talking about the New York football Giants. It also means the first real rival was the 49ers, not the Cowboys. Don’t worry, I ramped up my hatred for the Cowboys in a hurry, but my life as a Giants fan really began with the 1990 NFC championship game.

To me, at 7 years old, the 49ers were invincible.
The previous year, my parents had videotaped the Super Bowl for me, and I was all excited to watch it. Avoided the morning paper, told my parents not to tell me the result, etc. How I managed this on a Monday on which I surely went to school is really beyond me. But when I sat down to watch that tape, I was hoping for a good football game. Instead I got a clinic from Joe Montana in a 55-10 rout. The 49ers were the best, and the best by a long shot.

Fast forward a year to the NFC championship game, with the Giants on the road against the two-time defending Super Bowl champions. I don’t remember the regular season, Phil Simms getting hurt, the playoff win over the Bears, etc. etc. I just remember we were playing the 49ers on the road in the playoffs. No way we even had a chance. But, watching live from my grandparents' house, there were Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, Leonard Marshall, Jeff Hostetler, O.J. Anderson, David Meggett, Mark Bavaro, Stephen Baker the Touchdown Maker, and – of course – Matt Bahr. (Note how the defense comes first? That’s how the Giants roll. Also, I just noticed Lawrence Tynes wears the same No. 9 as Bahr did. Coincidence?)

There’s something special about watching a January football game from California, when it’s dark and freezing where you are, but bright, sunny, and – presumably – warm on the field. For me, it’s part of the Rose Bowl’s appeal, but in the NFL it applies to the 49ers and, very occasionally, the Raiders and Chargers. Usually night games are the most dramatic, but somehow January sun in California has the potential to top it all.

So in January sunshine in San Francisco, Marshall knocked out Montana, Bahr kicked five field goals, and a fan was born. So as a Giants fan, I can appreciate that playoff games at Candlestick Park have an aura about them. Part of it is the daylight kickoff, with the game’s dramatic finale concluding in late afternoon, sometimes at twilight. Part of it is that the games tend to be high-scoring and entertaining. But most of it is that they tend to be dramatic.

According to pro-football-reference.com, the 49ers are 18-7 in playoff games at Candlestick Park, with eight of those games decided by four points or less. Now eight out of 25 is 32 percent, and while I haven’t done all the research, it seems likely that is not statistically significant in NFL playoff history. These are good teams with everything on the line; you should get close games. In fact, the blowout percentage might be higher than average, simply because some of those 49ers teams were so good. After the Bahr game, the 49ers played nine consecutive playoff games without deciding one by four points or less.

But the playoff games that are close at Candlestick are really unforgettable. Four of those eight took place in my lifetime, and they’re all among the greatest playoff games in NFL history:
  • Bahr’s field goals to beat San Fran in the ’90 NFC title game (15-13 Giants)
  • Steve Young to TO on the last play of a ’98 wildcard game against Green Bay (30-27 49ers)
  • Comebacks galore and that crazy Giants botched field goal on the last play of an ’02 wildcard game (39-38 49ers)
  • Saturday’s ridiculous final four minutes against New Orleans and Alex Smith to Vernon Davis (36-32 49ers) - while we're at it, check out a radio call that does a pretty good job of capturing the excitement of the moment

The Catch
Of course, none of those compare to the ’81 NFC title game, when The Catch sent San Francisco to its first of five Super Bowl titles and ended the Cowboys dynasty of the ’70s. Thanks to the magic of NFL Films, Dwight Clark, Too Tall Jones, Joe Montana, and even 49ers cornerback Eric Davis (game-saving tackle after The Catch) all live on in my memory.

Those five games are some of the most memorable playoff games of the last 30 years (Bills-Oilers, Chargers-Steelers, Raiders-Patriots, Giants-Packers are among the others for me, but everybody will have their own list), and we could get another one on Sunday at Candlestick.

To make things even more nostalgic, the all-time series between San Francisco and New York could hardly be any closer. The 49ers lead the all-time series 18-17 by virtue of a 4-3 playoff edge and a 3-2 margin at Candlestick Park. Seems pre-ordained for the Giants to tie it up, right?

Hardly. The Giants are 1-5 in their last six trips to San Francisco (the only win coming in November 2005), and the 49ers’ 13 wins are their most since 1997. Despite the Giants’ recent play and supposed quarterback advantage, I think you have to install the 49ers as slight favorites at home. Which should set us up for another close game, and another thrilling, decided-in-the-last-minute, scream-at-the-TV, afternoon-sunshine finish at Candlestick.

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