A Head-to-Head History: The New York Giants and The San Francisco 49ers

A Head-to-Head History: The New York Giants and The San Francisco 49ers

The 2011 NFC Championship Game was one of the most exciting, hard hitting and tightly contested games of the 2001 season, and it recalled a battle for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl 22 years prior, which I wrote about in my very first blog for the GUD last January. For fans of both teams, the week leading up to the game was undoubtedly spent not only scouting match-up advantages, but also reminiscing to a time when the San Francisco - New York rivalry was white hot.

Between the years 1981 - 1993 they met in the playoffs six times, with the winner of the contest ultimately being crowned Super Bowl Champions four times. A dramatic Wild Card Game in 2002 brings the total of playoff meetings to eight, making the Giants the 49ers most frequent post season opponent (they've met Dallas seven times and have a 2-5 record against them) and San Francisco is tied with Chicago as the New York's most frequent opponent (they are 3-5 against the Bears, but five of those meetings predate the Super Bowl era.)

The series has not only been intense, it has been remarkably even. The regular season ledger has  each team with 14 wins apiece and San Francisco with the slightest margin of edges in total points scored with seven. The post season is even tighter, with a 4-4 split in wins and a miniscule two point lead for San Francisco. Memorable Prime Time contests, career defining moments, Hall of Fame Coaches and players and Championship Battles define this inter-division rivalry.

The 49ers were still something of a new commodity when they made a cross country trip to New York's Polo Grounds in November of 1952, this being only their seventh season of play and third since their migration from the AAFC to the NFL. As was common at the time, this game was color-versus-color. San Francisco was one of four teams to have only one jersey, and only four of the remaining eight teams had white as an option. The Giants primary jersey dating back to the late 1930's was solid red - there was no home-road designation at that time - so they would wear their alternate solid blue when they met a team red wearing team like the 49ers. The grey pants and blue shelled helmet with a red center stripe gave the Giants a look that would not be out of place today. The same could be said of San Francisco in regard to their jerseys and socks, which were red with three equal width white stripes. The only unfamiliar aspect with the 49ers of  today would be the silver helmets and pants, which were something of a variable. Over the first 17 years of their history the 49ers alternated between silver, gold and white as their secondary color, until permanently settling on gold in 1964.  Y.A. Tittle's 358 passing yards in the game were more than double than his counterpart and future teammate Charley Conerly's output, but four interceptions doomed the 49ers in the 23-14 loss.

The next meeting came on opening day of the 1956 season in San Francisco's Kezar Stadium. After an explosive first quarter that saw New York take a 17-0 lead, and the teams traded touchdown along the way to a 38-21 Giants victory. As in the game four years earlier, Tittle threw for over 300 yards in the failed comeback effort, but turned the ball over with three interceptions. This color-versus-color match-up featured San Francisco in solid white helmets and white pants with a broad red stripe with their same three-stripe red jerseys and socks. The Giants wore their same solid blue jerseys and stripe-less grey pants. This win was the first step for New York in an 8-3-1 season and NFL Championship victory over Chicago. It would be the Giants last title for 30 years.

1957 saw the NFL pass legislation, largely to accommodate the league's growing black-and-white television watching audience, declaring each team have two jerseys, one primary color and the other white. For the most part, home teams almost always wore their primary color jerseys at home and white on the road. This was the year the Giants actually became "Big Blue". Three thin stripes were to the pants (red-blue-red separated by grey) and bold white numbers to both the front and back of the helmet, flanking the red stripe. This uniform is nearly identical to what the Giants wear today. San Francisco had worn their first white jersey in 1955, which featured black and red stripes on the sleeves and black drop-shadows on the numbers, but they only lasted the season. Their latest white jersey incorporated the newly returned gold prominently, two of the three sleeve and sock stripes were now gold - and complimented the solid gold helmet and pants nicely. Tittle's team finally broke into the win column against the Giants in old Yankee Stadium, 27-17. San Francisco finished the year tied for first in the NFL Western Conference with the Detroit Lions, but fell victim to a Bobby Layne comeback in a 31-27 loss in a playoff.

1960 saw the teams meet on opening day at Kezar Stadium, in a very red and silver/grey match-up. The Giants of course wore the designated road white jerseys with red numbers and Northwestern sleeve stripes and red socks. San Francisco remained in their standard red jerseys with three white stripes and white block numbers, but silver was back as their complimentary color for helmets and pants. The helmets now featured a unique, red Northwestern style striping pattern. The Giants won a close game 21-19.

By 1963 many changes had occurred for both teams. Tittle was now in New York wearing blue and both teams helmets featured their first logos. The Giants were in their third season sporting their lowercase "ny" and San Francisco the red oval with the interlocking "SF". The 49ers helmets  also featured the same red-white-red striping pattern they use now, but they still fell on a silver shell. The road white jerseys featured two over-the-shoulder UCLA stripes. Tittle had a huge day against his former team with four touchdown passes, on his way to a then record 36 touchdown passes. The Giants would win the Eastern Conference but lost the title game for the third consecutive year.

When these two teams met in 1968 in Yankee Stadium, the rivalry was just beginning
When the teams met again in Yankee Stadium in 1968, the 49ers had found their signature look, and the Giants had embarked on a period of experimentation. San Francisco was now in "49'er Gold" for good, and although the pants stripes would eventually grow larger, the red-white-red pattern was set, and the red sleeve stripes on the white jerseys fell in the same the same three-stripe pattern as the white stripes on the red jerseys. For the Giants, although the solid blue home jerseys were the same, the pants were now white with an inverted blue-red-blue striping pattern, and the numbers on the front and back of the helmets were thinner and much larger. Fran Tarkenton and the Giants offense struggled as New York fell to John Brodie's 49ers 26-10.

The Giants started a five game win streak against the 49ers in 1972 with their first visit to Candlestick Park. The Giants white jerseys were now nearly absent of any red, appearing only in the thin blue-red-blue striping on the sleeve cuffs. By the second meeting in 1975 things had changed radically for New York. A major (and uncharacteristic) overhaul took place for the normally conservative Giants. White and red stripes were everywhere, and the pants featured broad blue and red stripes (with the white jerseys the pants were blue with white and red stripes). Most alarming though, was a bold, double-vision inducing "NY" logo on the helmet. Still more unusual than the Giants outfits that day, was the fact that both teams were in a simultaneous down period. For all five contests between the Giants and 49ers between
1975 - 1980, they finished with losing records at or near the bottom of their respective divisions.

When the 6-6 Giants visited 9-3 San Francisco in November 1981, neither team had any idea a major rivalry was about to be born. Over the next 12 years, a 49ers - Giants game was as important and as intense as any 49ers-Rams or Giants-Redskins battle. San Francisco and Bill Walsh's "West Coat Offense"  had the upper hand at the start, winning five straight, including two Divisional Playoff Games. The 49ers uniforms had not changed significantly, excepting the large width of the pants stripes. In the meantime, the Giants modified back to a more conventional style that greatly resembled their look from the early 70's. Blue-red-blue stripes ran down the white pants and across the cuffs and v-necks of the white jerseys, and the socks were again solid blue. The italicized, underlined "GIANTS" logo from 1976 was now on a helmet featuring a single red stripe and bold numbers only on the back.

The 1981 game was a low scoring affair, with the 49ers winning 17-10 in a tightly contested, defensive battle. The Giants won their last three games to finish with a  a 9-7 record and their first playoff birth since Y.A. Tittle's remarkable 1963 season. The 49ers also won out, closing the regular season with a franchise best 13-3 record and a first round bye. The Giants upset the Eagles in Philadelphia in the Wild Card Game, earning the right for a rematch with the 49ers. The game was a reversal of the recent pattern, with both teams scoring often. Scott Brunner had taken over for the injured Phil Simms late in the year and hit Johnny Perkins and Earnest Gray on long scoring strikes. Montana however, was more efficient and had a 300-yard effort as he completed passes to eight different receivers in the 38-24 win. This game was of course, the prelude to a classic as the 49'er dynasty officially launched against Dallas with Dwight Clark's famous catch the following week and ultimately a victory in Super Bowl XVI.

The teams did not meet until an October Monday night at Giants Stadium in 1984. The Giants home jerseys had changed quite a bit since San Francisco's last visit in 1979 - the rookie year for their quarterbacks Montana and Phil Simms. The pants and socks were unchanged from the road uniform. The royal blue jersey had white block numbers with red trim, and the sleeve cuffs and v-neck had red-white-red stripes. This would be the Giants standard uniform through the 1999 season. The improved look did not help New York though. San Francisco jumped all over the Giants early with big plays: a 59 touchdown by Renaldo Nehmiah and 79-yard punt return by Dana MacLemore gave San Francisco a 21-0 lead before the first quarter was over and the Giants were never able to amount a comeback, losing 31-10.

As in 1981, the teams would meet in Candlestick Park for a Divisional Playoff. The Giants again qualified as a Wild Card entry 2ith a 9-7 record, and the 49ers were the NFC's top seed with a 15-1 record (a new record for the most wins by an NFL team in the regular season.) San Francisco followed the same recipe for success: they jumped ahead early, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions, before both defenses settled in and controlled the pace of the game. The Giants only touchdown of the game came on an interception return by linebacker Harry Carson in the 21-10 loss. The 49ers rolled on to their second championship in four seasons as they bested the Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX.

New York and San Francisco met in the post season again in 1985, only this time the game would be in the Wild Card round at Giants Stadium, New York's first home playoff game since 1962. The hallmarks of the Bill Parcells Giants were on full display that cold, windy afternoon: a rugged defense that sacked Montana four times and an offense that moved the chains and controlled the clock with the run as Joe Morris chugged for 141 yards on 30 carries. The Giants run ended in Chicago the next week, again bowing to the eventual Super Bowl champions.

1986 brought another prime time game and another playoff contest between the two NFC powers. The December 1 match-up on Monday Night Football remains a signature game for Simms and the pinnacle moment of teammate Mark Bavaro's career. Again jumping ahead early, the 49ers led 17-0 at halftime as their defense stymied the Giants run game {for the game, the Giants would finish with a measly 13 yards on 19 carries} and forced Simms into two takeaways {one fumble and one interception.} Facing a third down on their first possession of the third quarter, Simms found Bavaro short over the middle, who then dragged as many as seven San Francisco players up-field for over 20 yards. The Giants followed Bavaro's lead and stormed back to take a 21-17 lead before the period ended. The Giants held on through a tense fourth quarter, thwarting a Montana comeback effort on the last drive.

Giants Stadium was the setting for the Divisional Playoff in January. After forcing the Giants offense to a three-and-out to start the game, Montana hit receiver Jerry Rice on a slant that should've ended with a touchdown. Rice mishandled the ball while racing toward the end zone and the Giants recovered for a touch-back. Simms lead New York on an 80-yard march that ended with a touchdown toss to Bavaro and the Giants never looked back, winning 49-3. The Giants ultimately went on to win their first NFL Title since 1956 in Super Bowl XXI.

A Monday night game with replacement players during the strike in 1987 is not worth mentioning, but Rice atoned for his playoff gaffe at Giants Stadium in September 1988. Coach Walsh was enamored with his newly acquired quarterback Steve Young, and he split time with Montana during the game, with both achieving mixed results. Trailing 17-13 late in the fourth quarter though, Montana was at his most dangerous. He hit Rice with a short pass along the sideline, safety Kenny Hill took a bad angle on the tackle attempt and took out corner back Mark Collins, freeing Rice to go the distance as he secured the ball this time for a game winning 78-yard touchdown.

There would be no playoff meeting this season, but that did not mean the rivalry became dormant. Both teams finished with 10-6 records, but the Giants loss to the Jets on the season's final Sunday knocked them into second place in the NFC East. That put the Giants in the position of needing the 49ers to defeat the Los Angeles Rams that night to qualify as a Wild Card. Simms predicted the 49ers would "lay down like dogs" and the final score seemed to imply that was the case as the Rams rolled to an easy 38-16 win in Candlestick Park. San Francisco would regroup and coast through the NFC Playoffs and win a dramatic victory over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII.

The Monday night game at San Francisco in November 1989 followed a familiar script with the 49ers jumping out to a 24-7 in the first half. Simms and the Giants chipped away, eventually locking the score up at 24 in the 4th quarter. An off-sides penalty on Giants special teams ace Reyna Thompson gave San Francisco kicker Mike Cofer a second chance on a long field goal and San Francisco escaped with a 34-24 win. The 49ers again  avoided a playoff match-up with the Giants thanks to the Rams, as they upset the Giants in a 19-13 overtime game at Giants Stadium. San Francisco then thrashed the Los Angeles following week in the NFC Title game and repeated   as Super Bowl Champs by beating Denver Super Bowl XXIV.

1990 brought another memorable Monday night game (and an already mentioned epic playoff game linked at the top of the page.) Both defenses dominated, limiting the opposing offenses under 150 total yards. All 10 points came in the second quarter, and Simms again attempted a comeback effort for the visiting Giants. Trailing 7-3 and faced with a fourth down deep in 49ers territory late in the game, Coach Bill Parcells passed on a field goal attempt that would've cut the lead to one point. The Giants pass attempt fell incomplete, but they held San Francisco to a three-and-out and received the ball with one more chance. Again advancing into the red zone, the game ended with a series of incomplete passes and 49ers safety Ronnie Lott and Simms exchanging heated words on the field after the gun.

Ottis Anderson runs through
49ers defense on a Monday
Night in 1991
Both squads underwent significant changes during the off season, but the 1991 season opener on Monday Night Football was eerily similar replay to the NFC Championship Game from the previous January. Although the Giants roster was mostly the same, coaching stalwarts Parcells and Bill Belichick were gone, and playoff hero Jeff Hostetler was named the starter at quarterback. The 49ers said goodby to Lott and Roger Craig, and had Young commanding the offense. Gone also were the stripes from San Francisco's socks, which were now solid red. The game itself saw another long range score by Rice - this time from 73 yards on a blown coverage, and the Giants finally hitting pay-dirt against their West Coast rivals on a one-yard run by Ottis Anderson to finish another methodical, time consuming drive. A pair of Matt Bahr field goals gave the Giants a halftime lead of 13-7. A San Francisco drive spanned the end of the scoreless third quarter and closed with a Young touchdown run early in the fourth. Taking over at their own 22-yard line with just over four minutes left, Hostetler drove the Giants into San Francisco territory. Bahr had missed a 51 yard attempt earlier in the quarter, but the 34-yard attempt with just 5 seconds remaining was good, and the Giants ended the 49ers NFL record road win streak at 19 games. However, for the first time since 1982, both teams finished on the outside of the NFC Playoffs. The Giants were 8-8 and would spend the rest of the 1990's in mediocrity. The 49ers were 10-6 and would spend the next several years battling the Dallas Cowboys for conference supremacy.

This trend is reflected by San Francisco's sweeping the next five games in the series, including a 44-3 Divisional Playoff blowout in 1993 that sent Simms and Lawrence Taylor into retirement. The regular season games in 1995 and 1998 in Candlestick Park were almost as one sided, with an cumulative score favoring San Francisco 51-13. The 1998 Monday night game saw the 49ers in the throwback-inspired uniforms that I wrote about in detail back in July: http://nfluniforms.blogspot.com/2012_08_19_archive.html

Given all the prime time exposure these teams received when they met, it should come as no surprise that the NFL chose to feature them in the first ever Thursday night season kickoff. By now, the Giants had returned toward their roots with their own version of an updated throwback-style uniform. Working from the Giants 1963 template, they grey pants were back, but with the 80's-90's blue-red-blue striping pattern. The brighter, metallic-blue helmet bore a bolder "ny" logo that hadn't been seen since 1974, and bold block numbers flanked the red center stripe. The game itself felt like throwback too. A tightly contested defensive effort that recalled the 1990 and 91 match-ups. This time however, the 49ers benefited from a game winning drive as Jeff Garcia hit Terrell Owens deep down the left sideline on first down, setting up Jose Cortez for a 36-yard kick and a 16-13 win.

Not to be outdone, the teams met in a dramatic {either unforgettable or infamous, depending on your point of view} NFC Wild Card Game the following January. The Giants, in their white jerseys with red numbers augmented by blue trim, roared out to a 28-14 lead at the half and extended it to 38-14 with only 4:30 remaining the the third quarter. The Kerry Collins-to-Amani Toomer connection had been unstoppable, connecting for over 100 yards and three touchdowns, and Tiki Barber added over 100 yards rushing with a touchdown of his own. Garcia responded with a quick touchdown drive that was capped by a crucial two-point conversion to Owens. The Giants went three-and-out, and Matt Allen shanked a feeble 29-yard punt from his own 13. Garcia responded in no time with a two play, 29-yard drive that again featured a two point conversion to Owens on the last play of the quarter. With the score now 38-30, the Giants went three-and-out again. Garcia led San Francisco on a 14-play drive that ate half the quarter and finished with a field goal, cutting New York's tenuous lead to 38-33. The Giants offense finally generated a few first downs before stalling at the 49ers 24. A low snap and bobbled hold cause Matt Bryant's field goal to sail wide, and Garcia capitalized on the momentum swing. Taking over on his own 32, he lead the 49ers to the New York 13 in under two minutes, then threw the decisive scoring pass to Tai Streets with 1:05 on the clock. The the two-point attempt failed this time, but the 49ers had a 39-38 lead. Following a kickoff return to mid-field, Collins completed three passes to get the Giants to the 49ers with 0:06 to go. Again, a poor snap-and-hold doomed the Giants, only this time holder Allen called "Fire!", rolled to his right, and launched a deep pass down field toward guard Rich Suebert, who was mistakenly penalized for being ineligible (although another Giants player Tam Hopkins was down field illegally on the play as well). Suebert was interfered by Chike Okeafor, but no flag was thrown, and the game ended with San Francisco being the beneficiaries of the NFL's second largest deficit overcome to win in the post season. The next day, NFL Vice President of officiating Mike Pereira acknowledged pass interference should have been called on Okeafor, with the offsetting fouls resulting in the Giants being granted an untimed down from the previous spot. The 49ers lost to Tampa Bay in the Divisional Playoffs the following week.

In 2002 playoffs, eligible lineman Seubert had a chance to be a hero
on a broken play, but he was interfered with, although it wasn't called
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Both teams went into a period of struggle and renewal after the 2002 season. When they met again in November 2005 in Candlestick Park, the Giants were reemerging under the stewardship of coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning. The Giants also revamped their road uniforms, now drawing directly to the same ones they wore in 1958 with plain red numbers, red Northwestern stripes on the sleeves and the thin, separated red-blue-red stripes on the pants and solid red socks. The Giants defense had the upper hand, limiting the 49ers offense to just nine first downs and 138 total yards. Back-to-back meetings in the Meadowlands saw more of the same as changes at quarterback for San Francisco (Trent Dilfer in '07 and J.T. O'Sulivan in '08) couldn't solve their struggles.

When the 6-2 Giants met the 7-1 49ers in Candlestick Park last November, the 49ers had returned to their classic uniforms from the late 60's through the mid 90's (although the socks remained without stripes). It was fitting, because the 49ers were atop the NFC West and prepared to battle the Giants for NFC supremacy again. Defenses had the upper hand as San Francisco built a 12-6 lead midway through the 4th quarter in an exchange of field goals. After a Manning touchdown pass, San Franciso scored back-to-back touchdowns early in the fourth quarter for a 28-14 lead. A Manning touchdown pass cut the lead to seven and the Giants defense held Alex Smith's offense to a three-and-out, setting up another tense finish. Starting from their own 20 with 6:35 left, the Giants moved methodically to the San Francisco 10. On fourth-and-goal at 0:37, Manning's pass attempt was deflected by defensive tackle Justin Smith to preserve the win for San Francisco.

Both teams won their respective divisions and met again for the NFC Championship in Candlestick Park. Tight end Vernon Davis burned the Giants defense early on a 73-yard touchdown reception that featured fancy footwork to stay in-bounds along the sideline. The Giants offense moved the ball well in the first half, with Manning and wide receiver Victor Cruz connecting numerous times to send New York into the half with a 10-7 lead. The 49ers made defensive adjustments during the break, and began to clamp down, stifling the Giants passing game with fierce pressure (they'd finish the game with seven sacks and numerous other hits on the quarterback.) Another Davis touchdown catch regained the lead for the 49ers, but a special teams miscue by returner Kyle Williams set New York up with a short field when he let a punt graze his knee which was recovered by the Giants. On third down, Manning hit Mario Manningham for a 17 yard touchdown and a 20-17 lead with 8:40 remaining in regulation. Williams responded with a 40-yard return on the ensuing kickoff, and Alex Smith passed and scrambled San Francisco all the way to the New York seven yard line. The drive stalled at the New York seven and the 49ers settled for a tying field goal at 5:43. Both defenses tightened in the clutch, as six offensive possessions produced just one first down and the game entered sudden death. New York won the coin toss and both teams exchanged punts. On the third possession of the extra period, the Giants punted from their own 44. Williams fielded the punt, but had the ball stripped by Jaquain Williams and the Giants recovered on the 49ers 24 yard line. The Giants ran the ball three times and knelt once before Lawrence Tynes kicked the game winning field goal from 31 yards out, becoming the first player in NFL history to kick deciding overtime field goals in the post-season. The Giants went on to defeat New England in Super Bowl XLVI - making this the fifth instance the winning team from their playoff series advanced to win the Super Bowl.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

San Francisco will be looking for revenge this Sunday, but if history tells us anything, its that this game will likely only serve as a prelude to another memorable playoff contest.

1 comment:

  1. It wasn't Bobby Layne who led the Lions to that special playoff win, 31-27, versus the 49ers on a chilly December 22, 1957, at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. It was Tobin Rote. Layne had broken his leg in a game a few weeks earlier.
    Another oddity that day was the actual last regular season game for 1957 played at Forbes Field in Pittsburg when the Steelers they faced the Chicago Cardinals, beating them 27-2. And there was no TV for that game. That might have been the last NFL game not to be televised.
    So the Lions-49er game was nationally televised, and I've seen color highlights of that game. Did NBC broadcast it in color? I be they did.



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