The New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers are dead-even in their regular-season rivalry, with each winning 14 games. The first time the two teams ever met was on Nov. 9, 1952, with the Giants winning 23-14, and the last time was, of course, just two months ago, with the 49ers edging the Giants, 27-20. Their playoff history is almost as close, with San Francisco coming out on top in four of seven games. The 1980s was the heyday for the Giants-49ers rivalry, as they were two of the biggest powerhouses of that decade, with the two teams meeting four times in the postseason. In 1981 and 1984, San Francisco got the better of New York, with 38-24 and 21-10 wins. The Giants then took the next three matchups, a 17-3 victory in 1985, a 49-3 trouncing in 1986 and a 15-13 win in the 1990 NFC Championship Game. The 49ers beat Dan Reeves' Giants in 1993, 44-3. And the last time the Giants squared off against the 49ers in the playoffs was in the 2002 season, which was one of the biggest debacles in Giants history.
Jim Fassel was in his sixth year as head coach of the Giants (with one more left to go), and the two previous times his team qualified for the postseason, things ended in nightmarish fashion. They melted down against the Minnesota Vikings in 1997, giving up 10 points in the last 30 seconds to lose 23-22, and they were destroyed in the Super Bowl in January of 2001. But those two games were just a warmup for what lay ahead. In 2002, the Giants finished 10-6, which earned them a wild card berth and a matchup with the 49ers at Candlestick Park on Jan. 5, 2003. What should have been a blowout, a romp and a celebration turned into a harrowing day of ugliness that will never be forgotten by Giant fans, as their team couldn't hold a 24-point lead and unfathomably lost, 39-38.
Things started out poorly for the Giants and ended worse, but in between was a wild ride of scoring, scoring and more scoring along with a dominating defense who had no problem shutting down the 49er offense. After San Francisco jumped out to a 7-0 lead, when Terrell Owens turned a routine short pass into a 76-yard touchdown with both Will Allen and Michael Barrow missing their chance to tackle the flamboyant receiver, Kerry Collins struck for four touchdown passes wrapped around another 49er touchdown, giving the Giants a 28-14 halftime lead. Three of the touchdown passes were caught by Amani Toomer, who hauled in eight passes on the day, for 136 yards. The Giants poured it on in the third quarter, when Tiki Barber (115 rushing yards) ran for a six-yard touchdown and rookie Matt Bryant booted a 21-yard field goal. The Giants had a seemingly insurmountable 38-14 lead. What could possibly go wrong?
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Well, how about everything? The first chink in the armor was a sure touchdown pass that clanked off the hands of Jeremy Shockey. With a 24-point lead, that misplay wouldn't loom large, would it? Yes, as it turns out, it would. That drop was quickly followed by the defense spiraling out of control, with 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia torching Allen, Will Peterson and Jason Sehorn with one completion after another. Two 49er touchdowns (with a pair of two-point conversions) followed by a field goal made the score 38-33. Meanwhile, Giant players were losing their cool all over the field. Shaun Williams and Owens got into a taunting match, with both players getting penalized. Only moments later, a scuffle of players on both teams broke out, with Williams throwing a punch, getting kicked out of the game and being assessed a 15-yard penalty for his violent act. Stupidity took over for Big Blue. Chaos and anarchy reigned over the Giants, as they slid down a slippery slope of turmoil with all hope of regaining their composure desperately fading away. But even with all that disorder and confusion, with 3:01 left to play, the Giants had another chance to add to their lead, but 41-year-old long snapper Trey Junkins, who had just been signed five days earlier, unleashed a bad snap. Though holder Matt Allen was able to get the ball down, Bryant missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt.
After Garcia threw his third touchdown pass of the game to give San Francisco a one-point lead, all was not lost for the Giants. Well, all was lost but they just didn't know it quite yet. The Giants got the ball one more time at the end of the game and moved into field-goal range, but the 2002 Giants turned the seemingly easy task of kicking a field goal into a Keystone Kops comedy all season long, and their season would end on one of the wildest, goofiest, yet heartbreaking plays to come around in a long time. There was a lack of execution, a wrong-headed decision and a blown call by the officials all rolled into one play. Poor Junkins, who spent the regular season relaxing on his couch in retirement watching NFL games on TV, was front and center once again.
On third down, the emergency long snapper uncorked another poor snap, but this time Allen couldn't get the ball down for a kick. Throughout the season, Fassel had drilled it into his holder/punter to take a knee and call a timeout if that situation should present itself. But Allen made a different decision, as he took the ball and rolled out for a pass. He tossed the ball to guard Rich Seubert, who, as the ball floated in his direction, was pulled down by linebacker Chike Okeafor. The ball fell to the ground, and time expired. The Giants looked around, hoping for a pass-interference penalty. The officials conferred and did eventually throw a flag -- but they penalized the Giants for having an ineligible receiver down field. There was one problem with that call, though, as Seubert had checked in before the play began. The next day, the league admitted that the refs had blown the call, but of course that was of little consolation to the Giants. Game over. The nightmare was complete.
Nobody felt worse than Junkins: "I know what went wrong . . . it hit the [bleeping] ground," was what he said about the infamous snap after the game. And Fassel stated, the game was "about the worst loss I have ever felt in my entire life." And: "It just got away from us today; it's just tragic."
Surely, the 2011 Giants won't repeat the mistakes of their ancestors, will they? They've already gotten their meltdowns out of the way at the end of the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Tom Coughlin's mantra this season has been "Finish." They finished off the regular season with a win against the New York Jets and two victories over the Dallas Cowboys to kill off their NFC East rival, and they finished off the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers the last two weeks. For decades to come, Giant fans will sadly tell their grandchildren about "The Disaster of Aught Two." But now the Giants finally have a chance to gain revenge for that blackest of days in franchise history.