SAN FRANCISCO -- Matt Bahr punched through the winning field goal, but first the New York Giants delivered a knockout blow.
The San Francisco 49ers were within 10 minutes of their fifth trip to the Super Bowl when the Giants defense finally took control of the National Football Conference title game and turned the 49ers' bid for a three-peat into a no-peat before 65,750 stunned fans at Candlestick Park yesterday.
The Giants knocked Montana out with a broken bone in his right hand with 10 minutes, 7 seconds left and recovered a Roger Craig fumble with 2:36 remaining. That set the stage for Bahr's 42-yard field goal on the final play of the game to gave the Giants a 15-13 victory over the 49ers and a berth in Super Bowl XXV Sunday in Tampa, Fla.
The loss ended the 49ers' bid to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls and five overall and means the Giants will shoot for their second Super Bowl triumph in five seasons against the Buffalo Bills.
"You saw a hell of a game today. The game might not have been as wide-open as some people would like, but I'm sure Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant would have enjoyed it. We hit their guy, they hit ours, both went down -- that's championship football," Giants coach Bill Parcells said.
The 49ers, by contrast, seemed shocked. They made their living winning games like this for the past decade.
"It's the type of loss that hurts now, but it'll hurt more in the next few days," coach George Seifert of the 49ers said.
Linebacker Michael Walter said: "I've never heard this locker room more quiet than it was after the game. The only noise in there was the CBS crew whispering as they set up their cameras after the game. We were that close."
Despite the Persian Gulf war, CBS was able to televise the whole game. The network broke for an update on the war during a timeout in the second quarter, at the two-minute warning and at halftime.
Parcells said: "Like every American citizen, our entire organization has tremendous concern for what's going on over there. Today, we were able, for the most part, to separate the game from world events."
There were no problems with security at the game or with a small number of anti-war demonstrators outside the stadium.
49ers offensive tackle Steve Wallace said: "This is very shocking, but life goes on. It could be a lot worse. We could be dead or out fighting the war."
The Giants' game plan was obvious. They were out to pressure Montana, and it was significant that they got to him three times in the first eight plays.
They limited him to one touchdown pass (a 61-yarder to John Taylor when Everson Walls gambled and lost on an interception attempt). The 49ers were still ahead, 13-9, when Montana faced a third-and-10 at the 49ers 23 with 10 minutes left in the game.
Montana was flushed out to his right and was looking downfield when Leonard Marshall hit him from behind as the ball popped in the air.
Although Wallace recovered it on the 29, Montana's season was over. Even if the 49ers had won, he wouldn't have been able to play in the Super Bowl.
More X-rays will be taken today, but Montana broke a bone in his throwing hand and may have to undergo surgery. He also bruised his sternum.
Montana said: "I still don't know what happened. 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."
Marshall said: "It was a clean lick. I wasn't trying to put him out of the game or end his career. Damn, I'm so happy. I just can't stand it."
Even without Montana, the 49ers almost pulled it out.
After they punted, New York quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who had been knocked out for two plays on the previous series by former teammate Jim Burt on what the Giants said was a cheap shot, came into the game.
"I hyperextended the knee, but I didn't want it to keep me out of the game," Hostetler said. "After the pain subsided, I was sure I could go back in."
After Ottis Anderson was thrown for a yard loss on third-and-one, the Giants faced a fourth-and-two at the Giants 46.
Parcells sent out the punting team and came up with one of the fourth-down gambles that are his trademark.
Linebacker Gary Reasons, the up back, took a direct snap and went 30 yards up the middle to the San Francisco 24.
After Hostetler threw two incomplete passes, Parcells sent in Bahr for a 38-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 13-12 with 5:47 left in the game.
Steve Young then replaced Montana with the assignment of running out the clock. It looked as if he might do it when he threw a 25-yard pass to Brent Jones up the middle and Roger Craig ran for 6 and 5 yards for a first down on the next two plays.
There was less than three minutes left, and the 49ers had a first down on the Giants 40.
Craig got the ball on a trap play on first down, but Erik Howard knocked the ball out and Lawrence Taylor recovered it in mid-air at the Giants 43.
"I saw the double-team block coming, and I just split the block and made the play," Howard said.
Of Taylor's recovery, Parcells said: "That's an example of the best defensive player [of the last 10 years]. That kid's going to Canton on roller skates."
Craig seemed devastated by the fumble. He said he didn't know what happened.
"This is tough, real tough. This is like a nightmare of running backs. It hurts really bad. It was a dream for us to three-peat and go all the way. It hurts a lot," he said.
On the first play after the recovery, Hostetler rolled to his right and found Mark Bavaro for a 19-yard gain.
After Anderson lost 4 yards, Hostetler rolled right again and found Stephen Baker on the sideline for a 13-yard gain.
Anderson got 2 yards for the first down and the Giants then played for the field goal. Anderson ran 2 yards and Hostetler got the quarterback sneak and the Giants ran down the clock until there were four seconds left to put the game in Bahr's hands.
A 42-yard field goal isn't a chip shot and linebacker Matt Millen said, "I liked our chances until the ball went through."
"I didn't want to look," Giants cornerback Mark Collins said. "I didn't want to see it. I was just praying."
Collins said he never turned around on the play.
"The crowd went silent, and I knew we won," he said.
The ball drifted to the left, but made it through for Bahr's fifth field goal of the game. The Giants didn't score a touchdown in two games against the 49ers this year (they lost, 7-3, on Dec. 3), but it didn't matter.
Bahr, who was wide left with a 37-yard attempt in the third quarter that he rushed, said: "The field was very firm. When I first hit the ball, it started drifting toward the left, but I hit it cleanly. I knew it was good."
Bahr 15, 49ers 13
Kicker Matt Bahr scored all the Giants' points:
Distance of FGs made 28, 42, 46, 38, 42 yards
Distance of missed FG 37 yards
Bahr set two NFC title game records:
* Most FGs attempted: 6 (previous record, 5, Jerry Kramer, Green Bay vs. New York, 1962, and Mark Moseley, Washington vs. San Francisco, 1983.
* Most FGs made: 5 (previous record, 4, Curt Knight, Washington vs. Dallas, 1972 [4 attempts]).