Giants vs 49’ers (1990) – A Game For the Ages

Today, we’re going to talk about a blown opportunity for a game of the ages. On Monday night, December 3, 1990, the 10-1 San Francisco 49ers hosted the 10-1 New York Giants. They had each suffered unlikely losses the week before, thereby robbing us of what could have been an 11-0 versus 11-0 matchup.

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Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be. 

Head here for the show page.

A Little Backstory

By 1990, the San Francisco 49ers were easily the gold standard of the National Football League. They had won each of the previous two Super Bowls, a 20-16 nailbiter over the Cincinnati Bengals, and more recently, a 55-10 embarrassment of the Denver Broncos.

Through the first ten games of the 1990 season, the Niners proved that nothing had changed by starting the year 10-0. A few of those victories were close, but coming into their November 25 home game against the Los Angeles Rams, they had won their last two by a combined score of 55-13 over Dallas and Tampa Bay. San Francisco boasted the best passer-receiver duo in the NFL.

That, of course, was Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Additionally, the Niners had one of the best defenses in the league, led this season by Dave Waymer, who intercepted seven passes, and Charles Haley, who recorded 16 sacks.

If the 49ers were the model franchise, the New York Giants were not far behind, though they had their struggles to close out the 80s. After winning the Super Bowl in 1986, the Giants missed the playoffs in both 1987 and ’88. In 1989, New York went 12-4, won the NFC East, and earned a first-round bye, but was upset in the Divisional round at home by the Rams. Like the 49ers, the Giants also started 1990 with a 10-0 record.

They were in Philadelphia on November 25 to face the Eagles. Coming into that game, the G-Men had won their last three by a combined 75-14 margin over the Colts, Rams, and Lions. The Giants’ offense was solid, led by reliable quarterback Phil Simms and running back O.J. Anderson, but their strong suit was easily their defense. Their captain on that side of the ball was the man who many consider to be the greatest defender in NFL history, Lawrence Taylor.

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    Setting The Stage

    When the 1990 schedule came out in the spring, everyone’s eyes immediately went to the Monday Night Football matchup scheduled for December 3: the Giants at the 49ers. A matchup of the two top teams in the NFC from the year before was bound to be big.

    The only way it could be bigger is if both were undefeated. A week before this matchup, each of them had a perfect 10-0 mark, each needing one more win to set this up as perhaps the biggest game in the history of Monday Night Football.

    But the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Rams, the Giants’ and 49ers’ respective opponents on November 25, had other ideas. New York entered Philadelphia that day as three-point favorites against an Eagles team that was riding a four-game winning streak after starting the year 2-4.

    The Giants struck first when Phil Simms threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Mark Bavaro. The Eagles then answered with two touchdowns of their own, a 49-yard pass from Randall Cunningham to Fred Barnett, and a one-yard sneak by Cunningham. Shortly before halftime, Simms threw another touchdown pass to Bavaro, this one from four yards out, but kicker Matt Bahr missed the extra point. Instead of a halftime tie, Philadelphia led, 14-13.

    The second Simms-to-Bavaro hookup would be the last time the Giants scored that day. Roger Ruzek kicked a 39-yard field goal in the third quarter to give the Eagles some breathing room, and Philadelphia added two fourth-quarter touchdowns, a six-yard pass from Cunningham to Calvin Williams, and a 23-yard pick-six by Byron Evans.

    Final score: Eagles 31, Giants 13.

    New York was embarrassed by their arch-rivals ahead of a crucial road game against the Super Bowl champions. A memorable play for Eagles fans from this game was on a run by Randall Cunningham. As he raced down the far sideline, Giants linebacker Pepper Johnson approached, and it looked as though Cunningham would be taken out.

    Instead, running back Keith Byars came to the rescue and blocked Johnson with so much force that the 250-pound linebacker went airborne, much to the delight of the crowd at Veterans Stadium.

    Getting to the Game

    So the first domino had fallen. The Giants-49ers game would not be 11-0 versus 11-0. New York was now 10-1, but maybe San Francisco could still win and give the Giants an incentive to knock off the “unbeatens.”

    Later that afternoon, the Niners hosted their own arch-rivals, the Los Angeles Rams. San Francisco was an 11.5-point favorite against a Los Angeles team that had fallen on hard times. After making the playoffs seven times in the 1980s, the Rams suddenly found themselves at 3-7. L.A. was not to be underestimated, however.

    They had won each of their previous two regular-season games at Candlestick Park, although they were embarrassed by the 49ers in the 1989 NFC Championship game, 30-3. The Giants’ loss to the Eagles was surprising, but not shocking. The 49ers beating the Rams had to be a layup, right?

    Well, Los Angeles running back Cleveland Gary would have something to say about that. The second-year back from Miami burst onto the scene in 1990 by scoring 15 touchdowns, three of them coming on this day. He caught a 22-yard scoring pass in the first quarter from fullback Buford McGee on a trick play and added a ten-yard run early in the second.

    After Joe Montana threw a five-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor, McGee scored on a six-yard run to make the halftime score 21-7 in favor of the Rams. The 49ers tried to climb back into the game in the third quarter, with Montana throwing a 23-yard touchdown pass to Harry Sydney, and Mike Cofer kicking a 42-yard field goal to cut L.A.’s lead to four points. Instead, in the fourth quarter, Gary scored on a one-yard plunge for his third touchdown of the game, and at the end of the day, Los Angeles had stunned San Francisco with a 28-17 victory.

    A Rams defense that had struggled all season intercepted Joe Montana three times. All of a sudden, what could have been the Game of the Century turned out to be just another matchup of two 10-1 teams.

    That’s not to say it wasn’t a big game. It still was. It earned a 27 rating for ABC, their highest-rated Monday night game since 1985 when the Miami Dolphins upset the undefeated Chicago Bears. After a scoreless first quarter, Matt Bahr kicked a 20-yard field goal for New York, and Joe Montana threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor. The halftime score was 7-3 in favor of the 49ers.

    What you have just read was a complete scoring recap of this game. That’s right, the final score was 7-3 San Francisco. Even though these were two very good offenses, the defenses were #1 and #2 in the NFL. So much for a Game of the Century.

    This would not be the last time that the Giants and 49ers met in 1990. They would play again on January 20 in San Francisco, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. In the interim, the Niners suffered another upset loss, a week 16 home defeat to New Orleans. That was their only blemish in their final five games, as they finished the year 14-2 for the second consecutive season. As for the Giants, in a Week 15 home loss to Buffalo, a worst-case scenario occurred, as Phil Simms broke his foot. Jeff Hostetler, who had only started two games in his NFL career, was now New York’s starting quarterback.

    The Giants won each of their final two regular-season games to finish 13-3, good enough for a first-round bye, but not enough for home-field advantage. Both teams scored easy home victories in the Divisional round: the 49ers beat Washington, 28-10, and the Giants crushed Chicago, 31-3.

    In their NFC Championship game matchup, New York defensive lineman Leonard Marshall decided that it was unfair for the Giants to be the only team playing with a backup quarterback. In the fourth quarter, with the Giants trailing 13-12, Marshall pummeled Joe Montana with a brutal sack from behind. Montana never saw him coming.

    Now San Francisco needed to rely on a backup QB as well, Steve Young. With the Niners rattled by Montana’s injury, Hostetler was able to piece together a final drive to put the Giants in field-goal range. As time expired, Matt Bahr’s 42-yard field goal snuck through the left upright, and New York advanced to the Super Bowl with a 15-13 victory. You probably know how that Super Bowl turned out: Giants 20, Bills 19. Wide right.

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