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A Date To Remember: ‘We weren’t even supposed to be there’

From almost killing Joe Montana, to Matt Bahr’s busy day, to prayers, how the 1990 Giants reached Super Bowl XXV

Super Bowl XXI: Denver Broncos v New York Giants
Leonard Marshall’s vicious sack of Joe Montana in the fourth quarter of the 1990 NFC Championship changed the course of the game.
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

A Date To Remember is an occasional series Big Blue View will be running through the Super Bowl, highlighting the glory of the Giants’ past and celebrating the biggest playoff wins in franchise history.

Answered prayers

Jan. 20, 1991

NFC Championship Game

Giants 15, 49ers 13

The oversized suitcase sat at Bill Parcells’ feet.

Some recall it being plaid.

But everyone remembers the impact it made when he slammed it down in the middle of a team meeting.

”He said, ‘I’m planning to pack for two weeks. If you’re not, don’t show up for the meetings the rest of the week,’ ” Pro Bowl linebacker turned broadcaster and entrepreneur Carl Banks told Big Blue View. “That’s how we started our week.”

Parcells was packing for the trip to San Francisco for the 1990 NFC title game and then for Tampa and Super Bowl XXV the following week.

A message had been sent. A tone had been established.

And a challenge had been issued.

The underdog Giants were going to beat the 49ers, even playing behind a backup quarterback in Jeff Hostetler against the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, Parcells was telling them.

“The 49ers had already packed for Tampa. We were supposed to be a mere formality,” Banks said. “They sent all their stuff. Their front office people, everybody was there.”

Just getting to the NFC title game and claiming a 15-13 victory on Jan. 20, 1991 with Matt Bahr’s last-second, 42-yard field goal — his fifth of the day — was an epic struggle.

The Giants had come to San Francisco as eight-point underdogs, looking to stop Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and the 14-2 Niners.

The Giants had lost starting quarterback Phil Simms in Week 15 to a broken foot. And even with the same dominant defense that won the Super Bowl in 1986 and Ottis Anderson leading the offense, few outside their own locker room believed.

”We weren’t even supposed to be there,” five-time Pro Bowl center Bart Oates told me in 2012. “We had a backup quarterback. Nobody gave us a shot.”

Anger builds

There was plenty of motivation.

The four seasons after Super Bowl XXI were harder than they should have been for such a talented team.

And the Giants were angry.

They missed the playoffs in the strike year of 1987, starting 0-5 and never recovering amid labor discord, including Lawrence Taylor crossing the picket line.

The Giants went 10-6 in 1988, but were knocked out of postseason contention in the final game of the season by the cross-town Jets, who scored the game-winning touchdown with 37 seconds remaining in a 27-21 loss.

And then came the controversial pass interference penalty in overtime of the 1989 NFC Divisional round playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams called on cornerback Sheldon White, who was covering Flipper Anderson. After a false start penalty, Jim Everett hit Anderson with a 30-yard touchdown pass to eliminate the favored Giants, 19-13.

”We walked into that season feeling like we had something to prove because in ’89 we thought we were the best team and then we get eliminated on the Flipper Anderson play,” Banks said. “That one burned. So we knew in ’90 we would come back and be as dominant as we expected to be.”

The 1990 season was a struggle in its own way, despite a 13-3 record.

And as fate would have it, the Giants and 49ers were meeting in the playoffs for the fifth time in nine years.

No love was lost between them.

‘A slugfest’

The game lived up to its heavyweight championship billing.

”It was a slugfest,” Banks said. “We knew it was going to be a tough game. We just played hard. Made the plays we were supposed to make.”

A handful of moments in the fourth quarter remain indelible: Leonard Marshall’s vicious hit that knocked Joe Montana out of the game. Gary Reasons’ 30-yard run on a fake punt. Roger Craig’s infamous fumble. And Bahr’s last-second heroics.

The Marshall hit was the turning point.

The 49ers held the ball and lead, 13-9, with 10:07 remaining.

Montana rolled out to his right, fleeing a disintegrating pocket, and stopped to avoid Lawrence Taylor, who was coming hard and right at him.

He never saw or felt Marshall coming from behind.

Montana took a hit so brutal that the man who leveled him knew the quarterback was not getting back up.

“I saw him pull up and I said to myself, ‘Oh boy, he’s going to get it,’ ” Marshall told me in 2012.

“When I left my feet I said to myself, ‘This is going to be ugly.’ There was no way the guy was going to return.”

He didn’t.

Montana suffered a concussion, a bruised sternum, bruised stomach, cracked ribs and a broken finger on his throwing hand.

“If we don’t get that guy out of the game, we don’t win,” Marshall said.

But there was still work to do with 9:41 remaining. The Giants moved down the field — thanks to a gutsy call by Parcells, who told Reasons to run a fake punt if the opportunity presented itself.

Reasons took his place as the upback, looked at the spot where the play was designed to run if they did run a fake and saw ... nothing.

No one was there.

So the linebacker called the play and sprinted through the gaping hole, setting up Bahr’s fourth field goal to cut the deficit to 13-12.

But the 49ers drove to the Giants’ 40 on their next possession and were draining the clock. Montana’s replacement, Steve Young, handed off to Craig. Nose tackle Erik Howard stopped him, and his helmet forced a fumble that Taylor recovered with 2:36 left.

The Giants then drove inside the San Francisco 30-yard-line.

And it came down to Bahr, who already hit field goals of 28, 42, 46 and 38.

Desperate prayers were mumbled or whispered under their breath on the visiting sideline.

Many of the Giants had dropped to one knee. Others had closed their eyes or turned their heads. They couldn’t bear to watch.

It wasn’t that the Giants did not have faith in Bahr hitting a fifth field goal.

”We had a great kicker,” Banks said. “He was one of us.”

It was just the unreliable turf of Candlestick Park and everything that had gone wrong since 1986.

“Everybody was praying, wishing and hoping,” Anderson told me in 2012. “You had guys saying prayers, turning their heads. I was like, ‘If we’re going to win, I want to see.’ ”

And he watched the kick rise right through the uprights.