One by one they re-counted their celebration stories to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, who sat in front of his locker and listened. His father, Bob, told of gashing his bottom lip while wildly leaping into the arms of 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora. Garcia's mother, Linda, explained how she had slipped past on-field security for the chance to embrace her son. And Mora related a few memorable moments from the hectic scene that followed the 49ers' 39-38 wild-card playoff victory over the New York Giants at 3Com Park on Sunday.
A grinning Garcia took it all in. For the first time in weeks he was having fun, enjoying the moment. He had just led San Francisco to the second biggest comeback in NFL playoff history and silenced, for the time being, the critics who have said that he doesn't have the tools to lead his team to a Super Bowl—in short, he's no Joe Montana or Steve Young. "Jeff is a great quarterback, and now he has his first playoff win," said 49ers tackle Derrick Deese. " Steve Young had to prove he could win in the playoffs, and I'm sure Jeff feels the same way. The fans probably won't completely accept him until he wins a championship, but they also can't deny that he can do things that other quarterbacks can't."
What Garcia can do is frustrate defenses with his creative instincts and mobility. In directing San Francisco's comeback from 24 points down—second only to the Buffalo Bills' rally from a 32-point deficit against the Houston Oilers in 1993—he passed for 331 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 60 yards and another score. He also received a much-needed jolt of confidence heading into this Sunday's divisional playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa.
Despite playing well enough this season to earn his third consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl, Garcia was blamed for the ineffectiveness of the 49ers offense. Critics said he was too quick to give up on pass plays and scramble. San Francisco's normally prolific passing attack ranked only 14th in the NFL (216.1 yards per game), and Garcia's average of 10.2 yards per completion was the lowest of any 49ers quarterback in 23 years. His 3,344 passing yards and 21 touchdowns paled in comparison with his previous two seasons, when he averaged 3,908 yards and 31.5 touchdowns and became the first quarterback in team history to throw for 30 or more touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
The criticism weighed on Garcia late in the year. Never mind that he had only one game-breaker in wideout Terrell Owens and that Garcia's hands were tied somewhat by conservative play calling. "I realize there's a certain level of expectation around here, and when we're not doing our best, we hear about it," he said after Sunday's game. "This team is still trying to find its niche, but we do have a survivor mentality. We find ways to win."
That's what the 49ers did on Sunday. Owens (nine receptions, 177 yards, two touchdowns) inspired the team with his first ever halftime speech—"Are we going to be pretenders or contenders," he said—but it was Garcia who saved the day. With the Giants leading 38-14 and 4:27 left in the third quarter, the Niners went to their two-minute offense, and Garcia showed how well he can handle pressure. He hit Owens for a 26-yard touchdown, scored on a 14-yard bootleg, connected with Owens on a pair of two-point conversions and put together San Francisco's longest drive of the day (15 plays, 74 yards) to set up a 25-yard field goal by Jeff Chandler that cut the deficit to 38-33 with 7:49 left.
"I just feel comfortable spreading the field and trying to make plays on the run," Garcia said of his success in the hurry-up offense. "We were methodical for the first two quarters, and we never really got our running game going. Once we got into the two-minute drill, we were able to attack. They never really blitzed me. All I had to do was figure out who had man coverage and just get the ball to the right guy."
In the end, the right guy was fourth-year wideout Tai Streets. He caught the go-ahead, 13-yard touchdown pass from Garcia with a minute remaining, concluding a drive that covered 68 yards in only 2:01. On the decisive play, X-Colorado Double Post, Streets was supposed to run a crossing pattern, but Giants cornerback Will Peterson anticipated the route and kept the receiver from making his move to the inside. So Garcia threw the ball to the outside shoulder of Streets, who turned and made the catch. "That play showed how well Jeff has learned to take advantage of weaknesses in a defense," said 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. "He knows exactly where to look and go with the ball as soon as he recognizes certain coverages."
The victory wasn't sealed, though, until New York botched a 41-yard field goal try on the game's final play. Twenty-year veteran long snapper Trey Junkin, who had been lured out of retirement five days earlier to replace the injured Dan O'Leary, made a bad snap to holder Matt Allen. Unable to set the ball, Allen scrambled to his right and lofted a pass toward guard Rich Seubert, who was dragged to the ground before he could get his hands on the ball. The game ended with Seubert being flagged as an ineligible receiver. Giants coach Jim Fassell, whose offense had rolled up 377 yards and scored on six of its first nine possessions en route to that 38-14 lead, said, "To play the way we did and have the lead we had, I'm not going to get over this one for a while." Over the last 19 minutes of the game, New York gained 69 yards.
(It got worse for Fassell on Monday, when the NFL released a statement saying that, in fact, the Giants had informed the officiating crew before the game that Seubert would line up as an eligible receiver on kicking plays. Furthermore, the NFL said, the officials should have penalized the 49ers for pass interference on Seubert and flagged the Giants for having another lineman, Tam Hopkins, ineligible downfield. If those offsetting penalties had been called, the down would have been replayed with no time on the clock.)