10 Best Postseason Wins in San Francisco 49ers History
In light of the impressive playoff wins this past weekend (Tebow Mania!), it’s important to remember that so many great games occur early in the NFL playoffs that ultimately fade in the haze of history.
For as proud a franchise as the San Francisco 49ers proclaim to be, there is no dispute about their success in the form of five Lombardi Trophies sittings in the lobby of the Santa Clara headquarters.
Second only to Pittsburgh’s six, and tied with the Cowboys — er, wait, change that...tied with the hated Cowboys, the 49ers from 1981 to 1994 established themselves as the standard by which other teams are measured.
Then came The Post-Eddie Drought. The Niners, under coach Steve Mariucci, made the playoffs in 2002, and since then it’s been crickets. Now that the team under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh has earned the No. 2 seed and faces perhaps as big a game as it has since 1981, it’s important to remember the big playoff wins San Francisco has had.. Here’s a rundown of the Top 10 playoff victories in 49er history.
No. 10: Jan. 5, 2003
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Wild Card Weekend in San Francisco started well for the 49ers when Terrell Owens took a Jeff Garcia pass and went 76 yards for the game’s opening touchdown. It was the sort of first-strike play that would knock out a lesser opponent, but the New York Giants didn’t flinch.
Giant quarterback Kerry Collins went on to turn the SF secondary into his own flambé. Amassing 342 yard and four TDs, Collins guided the Giants to a 38-14 lead midway in the second half. That’s a 31-7 margin. The Niners looked dead. Amani Toomer, who grew up in nearby Pinole and prepped at De La Salle High School, had three TD catches for the Giants.
But 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia suddenly — finally? — found his footing, and his receivers. Two passing TDs and a rushing TD courtesy of Garcia, along with two 2-point conversions accounted for the remarkable rally. Tai Sheets made the winning catch with about a minute left in the game. The 49ers led 39-38.
Though this was a game that had about 127 turning points that had the teams ending with identical yardage totals (446), Collins' masterful passing got the Giants into field-goal range for the game’s last play. Matt Bryant lined up for the 41-yard attempt. But the snap by Trey Junkin was low. Holder Matt Allen couldn’t hold it. He scrambled and fired — heaved? — the ball downfield.
A Giants player appeared to be open. Then he appeared to be tackled before the ball arrived. Pass interference? No. Ineligible receiver downfield. And then came all the second-guessing. It was third down, what about spiking? What about throwing out of bounds?
It didn’t matter. The crazy comeback stood, and the Niners went to Tampa Bay and promptly got their clocks cleaned 31-6.
No. 9: Jan. 3, 1999
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Otherwise known as Terrell Owens’ redemption, this was the game where the 49ers snapped a three-game playoff losing streak to the Packers. By the late ‘90s, Mike Holmgren, the 49ers former offensive coordinator, had led the Packers to NFL supremacy. It helped that he had Brett Favre to do it.
It was a slug fest from the outset, and the Niners were as desperate as ever. Favre was masterful in guiding his team down the field. On an audible he hit Antonio Freeman for a 15-yard TD pass to give the Packers a 27-23 lead with just under two minutes on the clock.
That left it up to Steve Young to answer, and he did. Scampers out of the pocket, short passes to the sticks and one lucky oversight by the officials — Jerry Rice fumbled but was called down (this was before the inception of video review), put the 49ers at the 25-yard line with six seconds left.
People remember the Owens catch in traffic between Green Bay safeties Darren Sharper and Pat Terrell and at least three other Packers, but it would not have happened without the athleticism of Steve Young.
He dropped back and slipped in the pocket. The rush was closing in. He stepped up in the pocket and unleashed a rocket nine feet off the ground — a 32-yard laser beam — that gave Owens the chance to catch it before contact.
Victory: 30-27. The next week the Niners were toasted in Atlanta.
No. 10: January 14, 1990
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As decisive a victory as can be found, the Niners proved they were the league standard by putting on a master’s thesis of what the West Coast offense should look like.
Ram quarterback Jim Everett looked strong in getting the Rams an early 3-0 lead. Then the offense devised by Bill Walsh clicked and the Niners were unstoppable. They scored 30 unanswered points and quarterback Joe Montana ended the game 26-of-31 for 262 yards and two TDs as the Niners outgained the Rams 442-156.
No. 7: Jan. 28, 1990
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The victory brought Super Bowl No. 4 and hindsight suggests this team ranks as one of the NFL’s best of all time. Its' three playoff victories came by a 126-26 margin, capped, of course, by the 55-10 evisceration of Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense in Denver. The Niners had 446 yards in offense to 156 by the John Elway-led Broncos.
This was a classic mismatch that showed off a superior team’s qualities unlike any other. It goes down as George Seifert’s first Super Bowl as head coach, but really this was the culmination of Bill Walsh’s creation of the mid-1980s. With Montana, Brent Jones, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Roger Craig and Tom Rathman, I can’t think of a more balanced, defensively effective and offensively potent team in the last 25 years.
No. 6: Jan. 8, 1989
This was a crucial rematch and the first big playoff win on the road for the 49ers. But first, some drama.
This was the year of the Joe vs. Steve debates, as Montana and Young were vying for the starting quarterback position. Montana was hurt and got pulled late in the Oct. 24 10-9 regular-season loss in Chicago.
All hell broke loose. Did Walsh overplay his hand to push Montana by bringing in Young? Was the team crumbling? The Niners entered the last third of the season struggling, confused and at 6-5 in doubt of missing the playoffs.
Remember, the year before they got upset in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings in what many consider one of their best teams. Now it appeared it was all unraveling.
Montana regained his touch and the Niners rolled to four-straight late wins in November and December. After laying down like dogs — an actual quote by former Giant quarterback Phil Simms — in a season-ending 38-16 loss to the Rams, San Francisco avenged the previous year’s loss to Minnesota in the first-round of the playoffs.
They traveled to Chicago and played in a game that had a minus-13 wind chill, and Jerry Rice broke free for a 67-yard catch and run (a simple out pattern that seemed unfathomable to the Chicago secondary) that led to a 28-3 route.
The Niners outgained Chicago 406-276 and it was the beginning of the end of the Jim McMahon Era in Chicago. He went 14-of-29 before getting pulled for Mike Tomczak. Mike Ditka’s Invincible Bears proved quite teddy-like that day.
No. 5 Jan. 22, 1989
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This was remembered for Joe Montana pointing out comedian John Candy in the stands and then guiding the Niners on a 80-yard march capped by a 10-yard TD pass to John Taylor in the Niners' 17-13 Super Bowl win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
It was more than that. It was George Seifert’s defense stopping Icky Woods and the tough Bengals running game. It was deciphering Cincinnati’s innovative no-huddle approach that prevented the Niners from substituting on defense, thanks to the at-the-line play-calling of Bengal QB Boomer Esiason.
But it will forever be remembered as the game that Jerry Rice caught 11 passes for 215 yards and a TD. It’s funny, but Walsh always preached the need to have a backup plan. In this game, the backup plan was, “Throw the slant to Jerry.”
It worked. Taylor got the winning TD, but Rice proved his stardom that night and that Montana kid, now with his third Super Bowl trophy, had become a part of the cultural lexicon known merely as "Joe."
No. 4: Jan. 20, 1985
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When it comes to the vote for Best 49er Team of All Time, this version is a favorite (personally, I still lean towards the ’89 team). But they were second in points and first in points allowed, with an average margin of victory of 15.5 points, best in the league.
In playoff wins over the Giants, Bears and Dolphins, the Niners racked up an 84-26 margin, capped by the 23-0 whitewashing of the Bears in the NFC Championship Game.
The 38-16 win over the Dolphins in the Super Bowl featured 537 yards on offense for San Francisco, and though second-year Dolphin QB Dan Marino completed 29-of-50 passes for 318 yards, he was picked off twice in the game. Montana ended the game going a pristine 24-of-25 for 331 yards and three TDs.
No. 3: Jan. 15, 1995
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This was the real Super Bowl of the 1994 season. The league’s two best teams, the Cowboys and the Niners, met at Candlestick Park, and the rivalry was as sharp as ever.
The Cowboys had the satisfaction of knocking the Niners out in the ’92 NFC Championship Game, and then beat them again in the ’93 NFC Championship Game in Dallas. The Cowboys were in their rage — young, strong and capable.
The Niners did everything they could to stay even, including signing free agents like linebacker Rickey Jackson and Deion Sanders. The Niners beat Dallas in San Francisco in the regular season, but the NFC Championship game was inevitable, and it proved to be one of the best games ever.
It started on Dallas’ first series when an innocuous pass from Troy Aikman to Jay Novecek was intercepted by Eric Davis and returned for a TD. The Niners jumped to a 21-0 lead, but the Cowboys rallied.
Michael Irvin’s 44-yard catch and run got the Cowboys on the board. After a Doug Brien field goal made it 24-7, Aikman guided the Cowboys down the field and Emmitt Smith crashed in from three yards to make the score 24-14.
The 49ers reversed momentum right before half. Young hit Jerry Rice on a scream of a pass along the right sideline in the end zone for a 31-14 lead, and the deficit proved too much for the Cowboys to overcome. The Niners, who averaged 32 points a game, went into the Super Bowl decided favorites and won easily, 49-26, over the Chargers.
It was a win that interrupted the Cowboys’ hold on the Lombardi Trophy, and it also proved to be the last year of the free-agent 49ers.
No. 2: Jan. 24, 1982
This is probably the game that current 49er fans are hoping to create, a 26-21 win in the Super Bowl to cap a 13-3 regular season and three-straight playoff victories.
Several things resonate with this victory, and they don’t have much to do with Dan Bunz’ great hit on the goal line or Hacksaw Reynolds and all that.
It was the first “northern” Super Bowl, played in the Pontiac Dome outside Detroit. Naturally, poor weather and difficult road conditions delayed the 49er team bus’ arrival at the stadium. They were late by nearly an hour but Walsh kept the team loose with quips about 49er equipment man Bronco Hinek suiting up and holding off the Bengals.
In looking back this has to be one of the least talented teams to win a Super Bowl. And perhaps here today’s Niner can hang some hope on these numbers.
The ’81 Niners were not great offensively, ranking seventh among the 28 teams in the league at that time. But it also had a defense that gave up 15 points a game, which was first. It had three rookies in the secondary and a fierce pass rusher in Fred Dean.
That defense (highlighted by the memorable goal line stand against the Bengals) and Joe Montana proved to be the difference.
The second thing that stood out was that the Niners celebrated in Detroit and then flew all morning into San Francisco. They were exhausted but told they had to attend the parade. And more than a million fans turned out.
The 49ers, the oldest pro franchise on the West Coast, finally had its first NFL title.
No. 1: Jan. 10, 1982
The Cowboy vs. 49er rivalry had been established by this time, and though it grew much more intense in the ensuing years, this was the game that elevated it to peak intensity.
Dallas had always owned the 49ers in playoff games. And Niner fans had the site of Preston Riley fumbling an onside kick in the ’72 divisional game that led to a miraculous Cowboy comeback.
The ’81 team was different. The quarterback was good. The defense was better. But the Cowboys — Too Tall Jones, Randy White, Danny White, Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson, Tony Hill, Doug Cosbie — were as talented as any team in the country.
It’s known for “The Catch” by Dwight Clark off a throw from a scrambling Joe Montana. It also required some last-minute heroics from Eric Wright on a pulling-away Pearson, who hauled in a long pass from Danny White after Clark’s TD and appeared ready to get the Cowboys in field goal range. A play later the 49ers recovered a fumble and their ascension to the top of the 1980s NFL heap was about to begin.
Few people remember that the Niners committed five turnovers that game. They also forget that the defense ranked second in yards per game (like 2011) and led the league in turnover differential at plus-23, much like today’s team.
If that draws hope against the Saints, so be it. That said, if the 49ers win this Saturday’s game against the Saints, it will have to knock off one of the above games to take its place in San Francisco lore. Which one? Let me know in the comments section.