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The Greatest Regular Season Game There Ever Wasn’t

Posted by Chase Stuart on October 24, 2007

As we all know, the New England Patriots (7-0) and the Indianapolis Colts (6-0) play in a week and a half. The teams should be a combined 15-0 when they play, which would make it the winningest match-ups of unbeatens since The Greatest Regular Season Game There Ever Wasn’t. While this Colts-Patriots game is the most recent one in a long line of match-ups, that game was the penultimate game in a rivalry that had been going on for over a decade.

1979: The San Francisco 49ers go to Stanford to fill their head coaching vacancy, hiring Bill Walsh to coach the team. With the 7th pick in the first round of the 1979 draft, the New York Giants selected from Morehead State, quarterback, Phil Simms. With the 26th pick in the third round, the San Francisco 49ers selected from Notre Dame, quarterback, Joe Montana. Seven rounds later, the 49ers would add a tall wide receiver out of Clemson, named Dwight Clark.

1980: In the first meeting between the two QBs, Phil Simms (15-28, 118 yards, 0 TD/1 INT) is sacked ten times as the host 49ers shut out the Giants, 12-0. Montana is 9-15 for 151 yards and a score, and his two INTs don't cost his team.

1981: The Giants hire Bill Parcells to coach the defense, and use the second pick in the draft to select Lawrence Taylor. Six picks later, the 49ers grab the star safety from USC, Ronnie Lott. Taylor would record 9.5 sacks, fulfilling his potential under the tutelage of linebackers coach Bill Belichick. He would run away with rookie of the year honors, and become the only rookie to ever win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Lott was converted to cornerback immediately for San Francisco, and would intercept seven passes and return three for scores, good enough for second in the rookie of the year race.

In mid-November, Simms would separate his shoulder, costing him the rest of the season. Two weeks later, Montana (in his first full season as a starter) would complete 69% of his passes en route to a 17-10 victory over New York at Candlestick Park.

Six weeks later, the teams met again in San Francisco, this time in the post-season. Montana threw for 300 yards and a couple of scores, guiding the 'Niners to a 38-24 victory. Lott would avenge his loss to Taylor in the ROY race, by intercepting two passes and return one for a touchdown. In the NFC Championship Game the following week, Dwight Clark would catch 8 balls for 120 yards and two touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys. The last of those passes would be a forgettable touchdown to clinch the victory. San Francisco would finish the season by beating the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl, and Montana would be named MVP of the game.

1983: Bill Parcells is promoted to head coach of the Giants. George Seifert is promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator of the 49ers. The 49ers draft Roger Craig, RB, out of Nebraska.

1984: On Monday Night Football, the 49ers and Giants square off again, this time in New York. It makes no difference as the Giants are blown out 31-10, thanks to three Montana touchdown passes. Simms would throw for nearly 300 yards, but they came with two interceptions. The 49ers would become the first team in history to win 15 games in a season, and would host the Giants in the playoffs for the second time in four seasons.

Montana was the center of attention, throwing for 300 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Lawrence Taylor would sack Montana twice, but the 49ers would still win, 21-10. Simms' numbers were eerily similar to what he'd done three months earlier, throwing no touchdowns and two interceptions -- one to Ronnie Lott. A few weeks later Montana would collect his second Super Bowl ring and MVP Trophy, as the 49ers beat the Dolphins, 38-16.

1985: Bill Beilchick is officially promoted to defensive coordinator of the Giants. With the 15th pick in the draft, the 49ers select out of Mississippi Valley State, wide receiver, Jerry Rice. Lott, after excelling at cornerback, goes back to playing safety. The teams wouldn't play each other in the regular season, but both teams would go 10-6 and make the post-season.

The 49ers would travel to Giants Stadium for the playoff game, where New York would host its first playoff game in over twenty years. The Giants would shut down Montana, Rice and Craig, who had become the first player to ever record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Taylor would have a sack, and the Giants would win 17-3. Simms completed fewer than 50% of his passes, but had the game's only two touchdowns. Montana, 7-1 in the playoffs at the time, would throw 47 times for 296 yards and an interception. The Giants would lose the next week to the Bears, who could shuffle pretty well.

1986: Lawrence Taylor is the first player in NFL history to have over 20 sacks in a season, and the first and only defensive player to ever take home NFL MVP honors. In week 13, the 10-2 Giants would go back to their personal house of horrors, Candlestick, to play the 7-4-1 49ers. Montana had been 4-0 at home against the Giants, and was making just his fifth start of the season following a serious early season back injury. Jerry Rice was on his way to leading the NFL in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, in just his second year in the league.

The game was scheduled for Monday Night, and the 49ers had revenge on their mind after the Giants had ended their 1985 season. Montana would throw for only 251 yards on 52 passes, however, allowing Phil Simms to steal the spotlight. He threw for 388 yards and a couple of scores on 38 attempts, leading the visiting Giants to a 21-17 victory.

The two teams would meet against in the playoffs, this time back at Giants Stadium. The 49ers had lost their last game to the Giants, along with their last playoff game to the Giants. History would repeat itself, as this Giants team was vastly superior to the squad the 49ers brought into the Meadowlands that day. Phil Simms would throw four touchdowns on just nine completions, while Montana would throw two interceptions in just fifteen attempts. Lawrence Taylor would chip in a pick-six, and the 49ers lost 49-3. In consecutive playoff games at Giants Stadium, Roger Craig would total 41 and 39 yards, while San Francisco was held to three points in each contest. New York would go on to win the Super Bowl that season, and cut the ring total lead from two to one.

1987: The strike shortens the season by a game, and Montana, Rice, Lott, Simms and Taylor all miss the Giants-49ers game, played with replacement players. Jerry Rice wins NFL Player of the Year honors, thanks to a ridiculous 15 touchdowns in the last six games of the season, where the 49ers needed to win every week to clinch home field. The Giants miss the playoffs entirely, and the 49ers suffer one of the greatest upsets of all time. San Francisco had outscored its opponents 124-7 in the last three games of the season, and hosted the 8-7 Vikings in the playoffs. Minnesota's 36-24 victory remains the only time since the merger that a team with five or more wins than its opponent lost a playoff game. (Such teams are 10-1 since 1970). Newly acquired QB Steve Young would also play in the 49ers loss to Minnesota, after he threw 10 TDs and 0 INTs in his first season with the 49ers. A QB controversy was beginning to brew by the Bay.

1988: Not counting the replacement players' game, New York had won three straight over San Francisco, including two at home in the playoffs. We wouldn't have to wait long for the rivlary to continue, as San Francisco flew east for week two of the season. Montana would throw for 148 yards and a score, while Young would throw for 115 yards and run for 48 more. Montana would find Rice for a 78-yard score, and the visiting 49ers would finally beat the Giants, 20-17. Simms would play well, throwing for 227 yards, two TDs and no interceptions, but the Giants missed Lawrence Taylor, who was suspended after testing positive for cocaine. The Giants and 49ers would both finish the season 10-6, but in dramatically different fashions.

New York would miss the playoffs on the last day of the season, losing the division on a tiebreaker to the Eagles. The 49ers would finish in a three-way tie for first in the NFC West, but won the tiebreakers and grabbed a bye. In the second round San Francisco would avenge its loss to Minnesota, before toppling the Bears and Bengals to win their third Super Bowl of the decade. Joe Montana would have another incredible Super Bowl performance, throwing for 357 yards and two scores, including the game winning touchdown pass. He'd lose MVP honors to Jerry Rice, however, who caught 11 passes for 215 yards.

1989: Bill Walsh would retire, and George Seifert was promoted to head coach of the team. Joe Montana would win his first NFL MVP award, as the 49ers looked to defend their Super Bowl title. The hype was off the charts when the 9-2 Giants went into Candlestick Park to play the 9-2 49ers late in the season. Only one other team in the NFL had even 8 wins, and it was the AFC's Broncos. This was truly the clash of the elite teams in the elite conference, a game fit for Monday Night. The 49ers would score 34 points and win, the most points New York had allowed in 24 games. Montana completed 82% of his passes and passed for three touchdowns, one to Rice. Simms would throw three picks and get sacked six times, as the 49ers announced their superiority to the nation.

The Giants would make the playoffs, but the defending Super Bowl Champions would add another trophy to their case this year. San Francisco outscored its opponents by exactly 100 points in three playoff games, and Montana would bring home his third Super Bowl MVP and fourth Super Bowl ring.

1990: Montana wins his second NFL MVP award, as the 49ers are focused on the three-peat, something no team had ever done before. But both teams had set their eyes on something even more noteworthy that year -- a perfect season.

New York beat Philadelphia on opening day, while the 49ers squeaked by the Saints. San Francisco topped Washington and Atlanta before its bye, while the Giants beat Dallas, Miami and Dallas before its bye. San Fran won at Houston and at Atlanta, and New York would win at Washington. Both teams stood at 5-0 after six weeks.

The two-time defending champs would beat two AFC teams, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, to go to 7-0. The Giants would win a couple of division games at home against Phoenix and Washington, matching the 49ers every win. San Fran would win at Green Bay and at Dallas, something they'd struggle to do again the rest of the decade. The Big Blue Wrecking Crew would beat Indianapolis, the Rams and the Lions, allowing just fourteen total points. San Francisco would blow out the Bucs, 31-7.

Both teams stood at 10-0, with their eyes towards a 16-0 season and immortality. Only four teams since 1970 had ever started a season 10-0. Three would make the Super Bowl, two would win it, and one would have a perfect 17-0 season. Never before had two teams started 10-0 in the same season before or since, preparing us for The Great Regular Season Game There Ever Wasn't. In just two weeks, the franchises would square off at Candlestick Park, with both undefeated seasons on the line. Montana. Simms. Taylor. Rice. Lott. Parcells. Belichick. Seifert. Monday Night Football. Can you imagine the hype that would take place for this Colts-Patriots games if it took place the first week in December instead of November? This was back when the NFC was the dominant conference, and the Giants and 49ers were the only two teams that mattered.

But before the matchup of two 11-0 teams could take place, each had to deal with a division rival, first. San Francisco hosted the Rams, a team they had beaten 30-3 at Candlestick Park in the playoffs ten months earlier. A threepeat and an undefeated season would ensure their place as the greatest team of all time. But Montana would throw three interceptions, Cleveland Gary would score three times, and Flipper Anderson would crush the 49ers' dreams with 149 receiving yards. San Francisco's perfect season was over at the hands of their in-state rival, and the 'Niners would respond by winning their next seventeen games against the Rams.

New York would face the Eagles, a team they'd struggled with in the past. Simms would play poorly, completing fewer than half his passes and throwing two INTs to go along with his two scores. The Eagles and Rams got to play spoiler, and prevented us from seeing two 11-0 teams take the same field. Think Michigan(11-0) @ Ohio State (11-0) last year, type hype. Now? The Colts need to win at Carolina, and the Patriots need to win at home against the Redskins. Neither has a very daunting task against these inferior NFC opponents, so this one may end up being the greatest regular season game there was was.

The Aftermath

The game may have lost its hype, but it didn't lose its substance.

The top two defenses in the league both brought their A game. The 49ers held Simms to just 153 yards on 32 passes, and kept New York out of the end zone entirely. The Giants defense? They shut down Jerry Rice to the tune of one catch for thirteen yards. You can count on one hand the number of times that happened to Jerry Rice in his prime. Montana had similar numbers to Simms, completing 12 of 29 passes for 152 yards, and the game's only touchdown on a pass to John Taylor. The 7-3 final would be the lowest score in any game that season.

The Giants would lose home field to the 49ers, and their starting quarterback. In a 17-13 loss to the up and coming Bills, Simms broke his foot. Jeff Hostetler would be forced to replace him for the rest of the season. The Giants and 49ers would both earn byes and win handily in the second round, setting up a titanic rematch from their earlier game. Once again it was in San Francisco, and once again the Giants would not reach the end zone. In eight quarters of football that season, San Francisco's often overlooked defense did not allow a single touchdown to the NFL's other great team.

Hostetler completed 15 of 27 passes for 176 yards, while Montana was 18 of 26 for 190 yards and a score. Nursing a four point lead in the fourth quarter,

Montana rolled to his right, unaware that [Leonard] Marshall was closing in on his blind side. At the exact wrong moment, Montana stopped rolling right and sidestepped Lawrence Taylor by jumping backward, right into the path of the 6-3, 288-pound Marshall. The impact that flattened Montana was so violent his subsequent fumble ended up 14 yards down the field.

The 'Niners recovered the fumble, but the Giants would soon force a punt. Marshall would have another sack and another fumble, and be the co-star of the game. Montana would never start another game for the 49ers.

Following an unsuccessful drive, the Giants seemingly were forced to punt. After lining up in punt formation, Giants linebacker Gary Reasons would run for 30 yards and the game changing first down.

Reasons, the signal-caller on punt formation, took a direct snap in front of punter Sean Landeta and veered right. It was wide open for him. Moments before, Reasons was given the green light by Giants coach Bill Parcells. ''The proverbial gaping hole,'' Reasons said. ''The 49ers were dropping people off the line to set up the return, and I knew I could exploit that.'' The daring move set up Bahr's fourth field goal, a 38-yarder with 5:47 remaining, and the Giants were down 13-12.

Steve Young would take over for the 49ers and complete his only pass for 24 yards to Brent Jones. A Roger Craig fumble with under three minutes to go gave the Giants new life, as who else -- Lawrence Taylor -- pounced on the ball. Hostetler would complete two big passes to set New York for a game winning field goal with no time left. Bahr's kick was close, but good, giving him his fifth of the day -- and sending the Giants to Tampa for the Super Bowl. In a rematch against the Bills, Scott Norwood would miss a forgettable field goal late, and the Giants would win their second Super Bowl.

Simms would lose his starting job to Hostetler the next season, and Montana would lose his to Young. Bill Parcells "retired", and Ronnie Lott would head to the Raiders. Roger Craig's fumble would be his last carry ever as a 'Niner, as he'd join Lott in L.A.. Lawrence Taylor would never make another Pro Bowl. Their two classic battles in 1990 would truly mark the end of an era, a rivalry that had started over a decade earlier at the NFL Draft. The Giants would defend their NFC Crown by beating the 49ers on Monday Night Football in the first week of the 1991 season, but the luster had been stripped from the game. The 49ers would win in the regular season in 1992, and then obliterate the Giants in the playoffs in 1993, 44-3. Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms retired after that game.

Fortunately, the Colts-Patriots rivalry seems to only be gaining steam. And we can only hope they provide us with two games as good as the last time Bill Belichick coached in a big rivalry.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 24th, 2007 at 12:07 am and is filed under History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.