SAN FRANCISCO - There were so many things happening on that final play. Penalties were called that shouldn't have been, other penalties were missed that should have been called, a bad snap led to a players' retirement - pure chaos.
But first, we had to get there. And with 4:27 left in the third quarter of the NFC Wild Card playoff game, it didn't look like there would be any kind of drama. The Giants were leading the 49ers 38-14 at that point. Of course, this game wouldn't be a noteworthy game if the 49ers didn't mount a dramatic comeback in the last 19 minutes of the game to ensure there was final-play drama at Candlestick Park.
The main weapon in San Francisco's comeback was the Jeff Garcia to Terrell Owens combination. Long before he became better known for his mouth rather than his hands, Owens was a very good receiver, especially when it came to playoff games. San Francisco's opponents knew he'd be getting the ball in key situations, but he still came through. The first time in this game happened near the end of the third quarter when he capped a 70-yard drive with a 28-yard touchdown catch, then followed that with a two-point conversion catch. It was 38-22.
After forcing a Giants punt, then getting a long return and a facemask penalty, the 49ers only had to drive 27 yards for their next touchdown, which Garcia scored himself on a 14-yard run. The two-point conversion to Owens made it 38-30. Game on.
Another long 49ers drive followed, this one ending in a field goal. After the Giants missed a field goal with three minutes left, Garcia led the 49ers downfield for the go-ahead score. Owens didn't score this touchdown, but he helped by getting into a shoving match after the touchdown with Giant safety Shaun Williams, after which Williams was ejected for throwing a punch. After the fracas, a failed two-point conversion gave the 49ers a 39-38 lead.
But this game wouldn't be complete unless the Giants got another shot, and they drove down to get into position for the game-winning field goal. Then, the chaos happened.
Trey Junkin had retired the previous season after an 18-year career. The Giants lured him back from retirement, though, after their normal long snapper got injured. This playoff game against the 49ers was the only one that Junkin played in for the Giants. He had been mostly invisible throughout the game, which is good for a long snapper, until the final field goal attempt, when his poor snap forced the Giants to scramble to attempt a pass. In the chaos that followed, players not used to going downfield were heading toward the end zone, calling for the ball. The desperation pass fell incomplete. Even if it hadn't, the Giants were called for having an ineligible man downfield, meaning that even if completed, the pass wouldn't have counted.
There's where the problems kick in. It turns out that the player penalized, Rich Seubert, had reported into the game as an eligible receiver, meaning he was free to go downfield on the pass. The NFL didn't realize this mistake until after the fact. The league also admitted that Seubert had been interfered with on the play, and that a different Giants player had been illegally downfield. Had the rules been called properly, the two penalties would have offset each other, giving the Giants a second chance at the field goal.
As it was, the 49ers won 39-38. Junkin took all the blame for the loss, even though he hadn't been on the field while the defense collapsed. He retired again after the game, this time for good. San Francisco's good fortune didn't last long, as they lost 31-6 to Tampa Bay in the next round.