San Francisco 49ers: The Top 10 Greatest Games in Candlestick Park History

Andrew Smith@@asmithwsuContributor IIIJune 5, 2013

San Francisco 49ers: The Top 10 Greatest Games in Candlestick Park History

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    Since 1971, the San Francisco 49ers have called Candlestick Park their home.

    The infamous wind tunnel by the bay has hosted 25 playoff games, including nine NFC Championships.

    Forty-two years, three memorable catches and a few embarrassing name changes later, the 49ers will play their final season at "The Stick" before moving into their glitzy new residence, Levi's Stadium, in 2014.

    In choosing the best games ever played at Candlestick, I did not shy away from including a few painful losses, as I thought it would be shortsighted of me to only include games in which the 49ers won.

    Additionally, you will also notice that not every game I included in this list is a playoff game. 

    Obviously playoff games carry far more importance than regular season games do, but a few games that were played in Weeks 1-17 stood out from the rest, and I felt those games belonged as well.

    So before San Francisco bids adieu to one of its most recognizable landmarks, we will review what I have deemed the 10 greatest games in Candlestick Park history.

Honorable Mentions

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    New Orleans vs. San Francisco: Week 2, Sept. 20, 2010

    Result: New Orleans 25, San Francisco 22

    The 2010 season looked promising for the 49ers on the heels of an 8-8 finish from the previous year.

    A dejecting 31-6 blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1 changed that attitude quickly, and when San Francisco returned home the following week for a Monday Night Football showdown with the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, many wondered if the 49ers were going to suffer a similar fate.

    Early on, it appeared as though they would.

    Center David Baas nearly snapped a ball over Alex Smith's head, resulting in a safety. Reggie Bush badly faked-out Patrick Willis on a 6-yard touchdown pass. Before the capacity crowd at Candlestick Park could get comfortable, the hometown 49ers trailed 9-0.

    Slowly but surely, San Francisco battled back.

    Alex Smith led two 80-plus yard drives and gave the 49ers a 14-9 lead heading into the half.

    Drew Brees then went to work, and, following some terrific goal-line defense by San Francisco, Garrett Hartley chipped in a 19-yard field goal to put the Saints ahead 22-14 with 2:12 remaining in the game.

    Smith would answer, guiding San Francisco on an eight-play, 82-yard drive, capped off by a seven-yard Frank Gore touchdown run with 1:19 left. Smith then found Vernon Davis for the game-tying two-point conversion.

    The Candlestick crowd held its collective breath as it was up to the 49ers defense to play for overtime. But Brees had other ideas, lofting a picture perfect 30-yard pass to wide receiver Marques Colston to get the ball into field-goal range.

    Hartley then came on to hit the game-winner from 37 yards out as time expired.

    Indianapolis vs. San Francisco: Week 7, Oct. 18, 1998

    Result: San Francisco 34, Indianapolis 31

    According to pro-football-reference.com, the 49ers were an 18-point favorite to steamroll the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7 of the 1998 regular season.

    But, rookie quarterback Peyton Manning and prolific wide receiver Marvin Harrison had other plans.

    Indianapolis jumped all over San Francisco in the first half, and led the heavily favored Niners 21-0. A 65-yard Marshall Faulk run on the Colts' first offensive play from scrimmage and two Manning-to-Harrison touchdown passes give Indy the big early advantage.

    Finally, Steve Young was able to get the 49ers offense in gear. 

    Young connected with J.J. Stokes and Terrell Owens on TDs, and Wade Richey added a 43-yard field goal to trim the halftime deficit to 21-17.

    After a third touchdown pass from Manning to Harrison and a Mike Vanderjagt field goal, the 49ers found themselves in a 31-17 hole heading into the fourth quarter.

    That's where Steve Young's heroics took over.

    The Hall of Fame quarterback used his legendary scrambling ability to score twice in the final period, including a 23-yard run which brought the 49ers within two points of the Colts.

    In the game, Young broke the record for consecutive 300-yard passing games in a single season (which has since been broken by Drew Brees), finishing with 331 yards for the day.


10. Jerry Rice's Last Game as a 49er

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    Chicago vs. San Francisco: Week 16, Dec. 17, 2000

    Result: San Francisco 17, Chicago 0

    What was supposed to be Jerry Rice's going-away party turned out to be Terrell Owens' coronation ceremony as one the most dominant receivers in the NFL.

    Owens set an NFL record that afternoon—which was broken by Brandon Marshall nine seasons later—with 20 receptions, good for 283 yards and one touchdown, as the 49ers completely dominated the Chicago Bears from start to finish.

    The 49ers defense suffocated Bears quarterback Cade McNown and held Chicago to 104 total yards and eight first downs.

    Rice would travel across the Bay to Oakland and play four mostly productive seasons with the rival Oakland Raiders before retiring in 2004.

    Why it ranks as No. 10:

    The result of the game was never in doubt, but seeing Rice play his last game in a 49ers uniform and having T.O. break a long-standing record was nothing special, which made this game worthy of an appearance on here.

9. The Seven-Play Goal-Line Stand

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    Philadelphia vs. San Francisco: Week 15, Dec. 22, 2001

    Result: San Francisco 13, Philadelphia 3

    NFL historians have always associated the 49ers with having a great offense.

    The 2001 team was no different. San Francisco finished the season third in total points, fourth in total yards and second in rushing yards.

    It would be the defense, a unit that ranked among the worst in the league the year prior, that would be the difference against the Philadelphia Eagles during this late-season battle.

    Both teams struggled to score or move the ball with any consistency. 

    With the Niners holding a meager 6-3 lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb hit running back Duce Staley for 46 yards on 3rd-and-5 from the Philadelphia 45-yard line.

    A McNabb to James Thrash pass brought the ball to the 49ers' doorstep at the 1-yard line.

    That is where San Francisco dug in.

    On the next play, Staley was stuffed for a one-yard loss. McNabb's next pass to Thrash was completed, but only for a yard, setting up a 4th-and-goal situation at the 1-yard line.

    McNabb rolled out but was forced out of bounds short of the end zone by linebacker Derek Smith, but safety Lance Shulters was called for holding, giving the Eagles a new set of downs and a new life.

    Twice more, Staley tried to run the ball in and twice more he was denied.

    Finally, on third down, McNabb's pass was intercepted by Smith, and the Eagles were turned away.

    Nearly six minutes later, Jeff Garcia found Terrell Owens for a 32-yard touchdown pass with 6:52 left in the game.

    After the game, the Associated Press reported Smith's comments about the exceptional play of the 49ers' defense (h/t ESPN.com):

    Nobody blinked...We got in there and kept stopping them. We've gone through some growing pains, but our defense has come along fantastically.

     

    Why it ranks as No. 9?

    I have a soft spot in my heart for great defensive plays, and that seven-play series was nothing short of amazing. The 49ers were jostling for playoff position at the time, so this was an important win in one of the last great seasons before the franchise faded into mediocrity.

8. Garrison Hearst Runs Wild

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    New York Jets vs. San Francisco: Week 1, Sept. 6, 1998

    Result: San Francisco 36, New York Jets 30 F/OT

    The San Francisco 49ers went through somewhat of an identity change the previous season in 1997.

    Known for the longest time as a pass-first offense, the Niners instead began placing a great emphasis on their running game. Running back Garrison Hearst helped San Francisco's offense stay afloat early in the season following a near season-ending knee injury to Jerry Rice in a Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Fast-forward to the start of 1998 regular season. 

    Steve Young gets his favorite target (Rice) back, and the Niners open the season against the New York Jets, who were starting something called a Glenn Foley at quarterback. The Jets proved to be a game opponent that day. Foley passed for over 400 yards and went toe-to-toe with Young and the explosive 49ers.

    Kicker John Hall forced overtime with a 31-yard field goal which set the stage for one of the greatest runs in 49er history.

    After a Jets punt pinned the 49ers back at their own 4-yard line, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg dialed up "90 Power O"—an inside running play for Hearst.

    Hearst took the ball, shook a tackler, delivered a devastating stiff arm and was off to the races.

    Terrell Owens paved the way for Hearst down the San Francisco sideline and outraced Hearst to block defenders out of his path. With a last gasp of energy, Hearst absorbed an arm chop from behind by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis and fell into the end zone, giving the 49ers the win.

    To date, it stands as the longest run from scrimmage in franchise history and is tied for the fifth-longest run in NFL history.

    Why it ranks as No. 8:

    Arguably, this is the greatest regular-season game the 49ers have ever been involved with, and certainly the best season-opening game ever. 

7. Steve Young's Victory Lap

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    Dallas vs. San Francisco: 1994 NFC Championship, Jan. 15, 1995

    Result:  San Francisco 38, Dallas 28

    When Joe Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994, it was up to Steve Young to fill in the long shadow that Montana cast in his departure.

    Many Bay Area football fans still sided with "Joe Cool," and until Young won a Super Bowl, in their eyes, he was not on Montana's level.

    Young's chance to shrug off his doubters came in the 1994 NFC Championship Game against their perennial rival, the Dallas Cowboys.

    Dallas had gotten the best of San Francisco in the previous two NFC title games, but on this winter day in Northern California, it would be the 49ers who would stand tall.

    San Francisco sprinted to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter on three Dallas turnovers. The Cowboys would draw to within 10 points, until Young willed his way into the end zone on a three-yard run, putting the 49ers ahead 38-21.

    Two weeks later, Young put together one of the greatest performances in Super Bowl history. The 49ers throttled the San Diego Chargers, 49-26, and Young was named the game's MVP, throwing for a Super Bowl-record six touchdowns.

    Why it ranks as No. 7:

    It's probably no surprise that the remaining games on this list are playoff games. 

    I chose to include this game because of the importance of Young finally beating the Cowboys and eventually winning a Super Bowl.

    There wasn't much drama in this contest because of how lopsided the first quarter was, but I still ranked it among the best playoff games played at Candlestick due to Young finally getting over the hump.

6. Roger Craig Drops the Ball

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    New York Giants vs. San Francisco: NFC Championship, Jan. 20, 1991

    Result: New York Giants 15, San Francisco 13

    The 49ers and Giants were locked in a kicker's duel.

    Mike Cofer and Matt Bahr each nailed two kicks in the first half as the two teams were tied at intermission, 6-6. Joe Montana found John Taylor for a 61-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Bahr and the Giants answered with two more field goals and cut into the San Francisco lead, 13-12.

    It was up to Steve Young, who replaced an injured Montana to hold on to the 49ers' slim lead.

    With under three minutes left in the game, and the ball at the Giants' 40-yard line, Young handed off to Roger Craig, who was met by a gang of tacklers and fumbled.

    Lawrence Taylor recovered the ball.

    Jeff Hostetler drove the Giants into position, and Bahr booted the game-winning kick from 42 yards out as time expired.

    The Giants went on to beat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV, and the 49ers were left wondering what could have been.

    Why it ranks as No. 6:

    As I said in the beginning, not all great games played in Candlestick Park ended with wins for the 49ers and this was one of them. 

    However it was one of the best NFC championship games of the last 25 years that offered high drama to the very last second.

5. Kyle Williams' Giant Mistake Dooms 49ers in Overtime

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    New York Giants vs. San Francisco: NFC Championship Jan. 23, 2012

    Result: New York Giants 20, San Francisco 17 F/OT

    From one Giants-49ers heartbreaker to another.

    The 2011 San Francisco 49ers made a living on special teams. Special teams coach Brad Seely molded the 49ers kick and punt return teams and coverage teams into an overall force.

    However, on this night at Candlestick, it would be the play of fill-in punt returner Kyle Williams that proved costly.

    During the fourth quarter, in a sign of things to come, Williams inadvertently touched the ball while attempting to avoid a punt. Replay confirmed the ball hitting Williams, and the Giants were awarded possession.

    Eli Manning fired a 17-yard touchdown pass to current Niner Mario Manningham to give the Giants a 17-14 lead.

    After San Francisco forced overtime, Williams once again had a chance to return a kick.

    This time, Williams fielded the ball cleanly, only to be stripped by Jacquian Williams with Devin Thomas again there to recover the ball.

    Alex Smith and the 49ers offense had to watch helplessly from the sidelines when Lawrence Tynes kicked the game-winning 31-yard field goal.

    Why it ranks as No.5?

    As painful of a loss as this was for 49er fans (and it was bad), it also stands as one of the most memorable playoff games at Candlestick Park.

    There really is no such thing as a good loss in sports, and it pains me as a life-long fan of this team to even write about this game.

    But I think omitting the game entirely would have been an even worse mistake than Williams' fumble.

4. Jeff Garcia Orchestrates a Miracle

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    New York Giants vs. San Francisco: NFC Wild Card, Jan. 5, 2003

    Result: San Francisco 39, New York Giants 38

    With 4:22 remaining in the third quarter, 49ers trailed the Giants 38-14.

    It was over.

    Kerry Collins, Amani Toomer, Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey had sucked the life out of the crowd—or what was left of it.

    Then, something amazing happened.

    Jeff Garcia drove the 49ers 70 yards on seven plays, hitting Terrell Owens for the two-point conversion that trimmed the deficit to 38-22. The Giants quickly punted, and within a blink of an eye, Garcia rumbled 14 yards into the end zone to make it 38-30. A second straight three-and-out resulted in a Jeff Chandler field goal.

    38-33, New York.

    After a Matt Bryant-shanked field goal that appeared headed toward San Jose, Garcia and the 49ers took the field again.

    Six passes and a nimble 12-yard run placed the ball at the Giants' 13-yard line, where Garcia rocketed a pass to Tai Streets to give San Francisco its first lead since 7-0 in the first quarter.

    The drive left one minute on the clock, which proved to be plenty of time for Collins.

    After Collins played pitch-and-catch with wideouts Ron Dixon and Toomer, Bryant lined up for the game-winning kick.

    Trey Junkin, just brought out of retirement to be the Giants long-snapper, botched the snap, and punter Matt Allen's desperation heave fell incomplete, despite a blatant defensive pass interference on San Francisco that the officials failed to flag.

    The comeback was complete and 49ers walked off the field as winners amid a shroud of controversy.

    Why it ranks as No. 4?

    This game, as well as the next one in the list, featured a bad call by the officials, whereas the top two games do not.

3. The Catch II

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    Green Bay vs. San Francisco: NFC Wild Card Jan. 3, 1999

    Result: San Francisco 30, Green Bay 27

    The 49ers had a bit of a problem in the name of the Green Bay Packers during the late '90s.

    From 1995 to 1997, the Packers beat the 49ers in the playoffs, and the games were not that close.

    Something had to change when both teams met in Wild Card Round of 1998 NFC playoffs.

    The game was a back-and-forth struggle. San Francisco held 23-20 lead, until Brett Favre appeared to deliver another dagger to the hearts of 49er fans everywhere when he found Antonio Freeman for a 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:56 left on the clock.

    It was now or never for Steve Young.

    A fourth straight loss to Green Bay would ruin an otherwise great 12-4 regular season. Calmly, Young pieced together a drive and looked to Jerry Rice, who had been held without a catch to that point. Young found the Hall of Fame receiver for a six-yard gain on a shallow crossing pattern.

    Upon being tackled, Rice appeared to fumble the ball, though the officials blew the play dead. TV replays confirmed Rice lost possession well before his knee hit the ground.

    With only eight seconds left, the ball at the Green Bay 25-yard line, and no timeouts remaining, the 49ers had time for one more play. Young dropped back to throw, nearly falling down in the process, and fired a picture-perfect pass to Terrell Owens with three seconds left.

    Though the 49ers would lose the following week to the eventual NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, they would not bow out of the playoffs at the hands of the Packers.

    Why it ranks as No. 3?

    The first big monkey on Steve Young's back was winning a Super Bowl. The second was beating the Green Bay Packers. 

    The 49ers organization needed this win badly, and it didn't hurt that came by means of one of the greatest catches in franchise history.

    But not the greatest...

2. The Catch III

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    New Orleans vs. San Francisco: NFC Divisional Playoffs, Jan. 14, 2012

    The Result: San Francisco 36, New Orleans 32

    In a contrast of styles, the record-setting Saints offense took on the ball-control, defensive-minded 49ers in a playoff game for the ages.

    All of the talk leading up the game centered around one question: ould the 49ers defense contain Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered passing attack?

    Donte Whitner answered that question immediately, when the hard-hitting safety leveled Pierre Thomas on a 3rd-and-goal completion in the first quarter. 

    Thomas fumbled, the 49ers recovered and the tone was set early.

    Following the turnover, San Francisco's offense—which was pedestrian in comparison to New Orleans'—rattled off 17 straight points, stunning the Saints in the process.

    Brees answered with a pair of second-quarter TDs, then found speedster Darren Sproles later in the fourth quarter for a 44-yard catch-and-run score, giving the Saints their first lead of the game.

    What ensued next was four of the wildest minutes in NFL playoff history.

    Alex Smith took a shotgun snap around the left end of the offensive line and scampered 28 yards for a touchdown to put the 49ers up 29-24 with 2:18 left.

    Brees then threw his prettiest ball of the day to Jimmy Graham for a 66-yard touchdown and hit Sproles for the two-point conversion.

    Smith had only one timeout and 97 seconds with which to work. The former first overall draft pick found Vernon Davis for 47 yards to bring the ball down the Saints' 20-yard line.

    Conventional wisdom would have called for San Francisco to play it safe and bring on kicker David Akers, who made an NFL record 44 field goals during the regular season.

    Instead, Smith played for the win.

    Smith dropped back and rifled a ball to Davis for the game-winning touchdown. Davis, just as T.O. did before him, ran to the sideline, eyes filled with tears, and hugged his coach.

    Why it ranks as No. 2?

    There was no doubt about this play. Smith, the unlikeliest of heroes, saved the day for San Francisco, and because most people did not believe Smith was capable of making a throw like that, this game deserves a No. 2 ranking.

1. The Catch

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    Dallas vs. San Francisco: NFC Championship, Jan. 10, 1982

    Result: San Francisco 28, Dallas 27

    Baseball has the "Shot Heard 'Round the World," but football has a play simply known as "The Catch."

    Prior the arrival of Joe Montana and Bill Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers were one of the bottom feeders of the NFL.

    From 1977 to 1980, San Francisco won 15 games.

    In 1981, Montana's first full year as a starter, the 49ers managed a 13-3 record during the regular season. And after defeating the New York Giants in the Divisional Round, the Dallas Cowboys were all that remained from San Francisco reaching its first-ever Super Bowl.

    In what would become a theme in coming seasons, Montana—with the 49ers trailing 27-21, and the ball at their own 11-yard line—marched his team down the field for a game-winning score.

    On 3rd-and-3 with 58 seconds left, Walsh called for the "Red Right Tight-Sprint Right Option" (via YouTube) pass play: "If you don't get what you want, simply throw the ball away," Walsh told Montana on the sidelines.

    Heeding Walsh's instructions, Montana took the snap, rolled to his right looking for an available receiver.

    At first, no one appeared open, until, at the last possible moment, Montana lofted a sky-high pass to tight end Dwight Clark, where only Clark could catch the ball.

    Clark pulled the ball out of the air, landed firmly in the end zone and emphatically spiked the ball.

    The 49ers dynasty was born.

    Why it ranks as No.1?

    Without question, this is the greatest play in 49ers history and the impact it had on the futures of both the San Francisco and Dallas franchises cannot be understated.