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Two weeks and five games of the NFL playoffs were history when the San Francisco 49ers took the field in Candlestick Park against the New York Giants last Sunday and already a pattern had been established: Team A gets off to a big lead, sometimes in shocking fashion; Team B fights back, heroically, dramatically, only to fall short at the end. The lesson: In this era of wide-open football, no lead is safe, especially in the playoffs.
It had worked that way in four of those first five games. Only Dallas refused to follow the script. The Cowboys played crushball all the way in their 38-0 victory over Tampa Bay, but that's the Cowboys for you. They always do things their own way.
The 49ers and their quarterback, Joe Montana, had played brilliantly in the first half. Montana was looking the Giant secondary off his receivers in the best Johnny Unitas fashion; he was suddenly finding big holes in a zone defense that had been airtight for the last month. San Francisco's blocking scheme called for its guards, Randy Cross and John Ayers, to pick up the linebackers blitzing from the outside, the heart of the Giant pass rush, and this was giving Montana plenty of time to work his magic, mostly to Freddie Solomon, who had six receptions, and Dwight Clark, who had five. On the one occasion on which Montana did look like a sitting duck, when Inside Linebacker Harry Carson came in clean, up the middle, Montana so sold him on a play-action fake that Carson did an about-face and went after the supposed ballcarrier. And Montana calmly lofted a 58-yard scoring pass to Solomon.
"Yeah, I did sense someone rushing me from the inside," Montana said. "I wondered what happened to him."
When they weren't passing, the 49ers were bedeviling the Giants with a running game that featured a new wrinkle—Left Tackle Dan Audick pulling to his right and sealing off the inside on sweeps to that side, an almost impossible maneuver, except that Audick used to be a guard and he has the requisite speed. "We have trouble keeping him from pulling all the time," said Right Tackle Keith Fahnhorst. "He always wants to. So this time they let him." The play sprung Ricky Patton for a 25-yard touchdown to close out the San Francisco scoring in the first half, a half that 49er Coach Bill Walsh called "the finest offensive football we've played in the three years I've been here."
It was pretty, all right, but the pattern of these playoffs had been that the team that breezed in the beginning wound up gasping at the end. As the 49ers trooped into the locker room at halftime, basking in the cheers of their faithful, they were thinking of Buffalo against the Jets, and the Giants against the Eagles, and Cincinnati against the Bills, and, especially, San Diego against Miami.
"That's all we were talking about at halftime," Cross said. "I kept telling people, 'Don't forget what happened to San Diego last night.' Everyone saw that game. You say, 'Realistically a team that's down 24-0 in the first quarter should never come back,' but then I thought, 'Realistically, we'd better score two more touchdowns if we want to win.' "
Well, they scored their two more touchdowns and won 38-24, but not before the Giants made things very scary. The New York defensive unit is proud. It had been wounded in the first half, confused and at times embarrassed, but now it was aroused. "The key to victory in the NFL," Walsh has said, "is a pass rush late in the game," and now the Giants were stepping up the intensity of their pass rush. Early in the third quarter Montana was pressured into a misfire and Strong Safety Bill Currier intercepted. On the next play New York Quarterback Scott Brunner zipped a strike to Johnny Perkins on a post pattern. Cornerback Ronnie Lott missed the interception, and the Giants had a 59-yard TD to pull to within seven, at 24-17.
Suddenly the 49ers' position didn't look so good. New York had muscled its way into the playoffs and past Philadelphia 27-21 in Round 1 on a defense and ball-control game, but here it was hitting San Francisco with lightning bolts, the 59-yarder to Perkins and a 72-yarder to Earnest Gray in the first half, the two longest scoring plays the 49er defense had allowed all year. Now a light rain started to fall, and although the Candlestick turf was not the disaster everyone expected after intermittent showers all week, it was still slippery in spots. This helps the pass catchers and throwers, not the pass rushers and defenders, a fact not lost on Giant Coach Ray Perkins.