It had never happened before. It might never happen again—or at least not until next year. It even turned a few eyes away from the Christmas tree lights in Rockefeller Center and got them gazing westward, in the direction of East Rutherford, N.J., where, get ready now, Giants Stadium was the scene of not one but two playoff games last weekend.
O.K., so they were only wild-card games, and New York went in looking for a sweep and got only a split: The Jets lost to the New England Patriots 26-14 on Saturday; the Giants dethroned the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers 17-3 on Sunday. But, hey, Giants Stadium was virgin playoff territory. Now it has been initiated. The Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium—all those venues of past glory—are ripe with history, with memories. The sneakers game on the ice in the '30s. Johnny Unitas and Alan Ameche and sudden death. Joe Namath whipping his deep ones against the Oakland Raiders. Well, now Giants Stadium, the House of Wild Cards, has a few, too.
Close your eyes and what do you see? Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien crumpled to the ground under the furious Patriot onslaught, 49er quarterback Joe Montana battered by the relentless Giant rushers, little Joe Morris scooting and swerving for 141 yards against a 49er team that came into the game with a long roster of major injuries and escaped two steps ahead of the ambulance.
The Giants didn't so much beat the 49ers as put them out of their misery. Niner coach Bill Walsh seemed almost relieved when this long, emotional, problem-filled season was over.
"What do you think of the Giants against the Bears next week?" someone asked him. He shook his head.
"I'm going to turn off football very quickly," he said. "As soon as I get into the shower."
The 49ers would have been better off facing almost any other team. The one thing they didn't need was a slugfest against a mean, nasty outfit whose emotional fires were stoked by the memory of five straight losses to San Francisco, two of them in playoff games.
The heart of the Giant defense is the line, backed up by six linebackers who rotate into the four spots, all big, rough guys who go 234 pounds or more. They rushed in waves and gave poor Montana a terrible time. He came into the game taped like a mummy. He said that during the week he had taken several shots of cortisone and one of a painkiller to deaden his aching ribs. The Giants also knocked the Niners' star running back, Roger Craig, out of the game with a battered knee and forced him to drop five passes. Halfback Wendell Tyler saw only token action because of a bad knee. Guard Randy Cross was out. Tight end Russ Francis left with a bad ankle. The Giant secondary, injured and shaky itself, never was tested because Montana never got time to get much going downfield.
Montana, who had missed a crucial practice day on Thursday, was sacked four times and constantly whacked after his release. He spent the day running for his life. Twice he went down on air sacks, near misses by Leonard Marshall, the 285-pound end, and linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
"He was rattled by the way we went after him," Marshall said, "by the way we went after his face."