There are certain NFL matchups that immediately conjure up memories of classic gridiron battles from yesteryear. That is certainly the case whenever the 49ers and Giants play each other, which will be the case when the two teams kick off Week 3 of the 2023 season on Thursday night.
The two teams were bitter rivals in the 1980s and into the '90s. From 1980-90, the 49ers and Giants won a combined six Super Bowls, with many of those titles being won at the other's expense. San Francisco and New York faced each other five times in the playoffs during that span, with the winner of that game going on to win the Super Bowl on three occasions.
The 49ers got the better of the Giants during their first playoff matchup, a 38-24 win, in the 1981 divisional round that helped propel Bill Walsh's team to their first title. The 49ers prevailed again in the divisional round two years later while handing Bill Parcells his first playoff defeat as a head coach. The rivalry may have been born one year later, when the Giants got a measure of payback after winning a defensive duel with the 49ers in the 1985 playoffs.
If it wasn't a rivalry by then, there was no denying after the Giants whipped the 49ers, 49-3, in the divisional round of the 1986 playoffs. New York's dominant win included Jim Burt's leveling of 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, knocking him out of the game and adding to the hard feelings between the two teams.
That brings us to the top-five moments in the 49ers-Giants rivalry, a rivalry that will be renewed on Thursday night.
5. War of words between Simms, Lott
A playoff atmosphere was in the air when the Giants came to Candlestick Park for a Monday night showdown with the 49ers in Week 13 of the 1990 season. After a 10-0 start, the Giants were coming off their first loss of the season against Buddy Ryan's Eagles. The two-time defending champion 49ers were also 10-1 and coming off of their first loss to the Rams.
The 49ers won an insanely physical game that included just one touchdown: Joe Montana's 23-yard pass to John Taylor that gave the home team a 7-3 win. The night is more remembered for the altercation that occurred during game's final stages between Phil Simms and Ronnie Lott.
On this day in 1990: SF beats NYG 7-3.— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) December 3, 2022
Fitting that this defensive battle ends with a sack.
Ronnie Lott vs Phil Simms at the end of the game was heated.
This is how the #49ers-Giants #MNF game went off the air. #Random49ers #FTTB pic.twitter.com/i34dIkhHSc
What set Simms off? Apparently, Lott had played the game in a fit of rage after Burt told him before the game that Simms had said some disparaging things about Lott, a future Hall of Fame safety. After playing like a man possessed, Lott made a point to get in Simms' face after the 49ers secured victory on the final play. It wasn't until Simms visited the 49ers locker room afterwords that Lott learned that his teammate had pulled one on him.
4. Bavaro bullies 49ers, leads Giant comeback
Of all the plays that were made during the Giants' 1986 championship season, none was more memorable than tight end Mark Bavaro's big catch during the Giants-49ers Week 13 matchup in Candlestick.
After trailing 17-0 at halftime, Bavaro pulled down a pass over the middle from Simms and literally carried Lott down the field for a 31-yard gain. The play -- along with Simms' season-high 388 passing yards -- spearheaded the Giants' 21-17 comeback win.
"Those kinds of plays don't happen very often," Parcells said years later. "That was a very inspiring play for our whole team. Things like that happen, and you know you're good enough to do it."
Week 13, 1986#Giants #49ers— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) April 28, 2020
With NY down 17-0, Mark Bavaro makes one of the greatest catch and runs you will see, when he drags Ronnie Lott down the field.
The play inspired the #Giants who won the game 21-17.#HappyBirthdayMarkBavaro pic.twitter.com/SSsjLZMRyq
3. The comeback
Before the Patriots' improbable Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons, the 49ers staged an equally jaw-dropping comeback against the Giants in the 2002 wild-card round. Trailing the Giants by 24 points, with less than 25 minutes left, the 49ers scored 25 unanswered points to take a 39-38 lead with one minute left in regulation. The comeback was fueled by future Hall of Fame wideout Terell Owens, who caught nine passes for 177 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
A big kickoff return, however, and two completions from Kerry Collins to Ron Dixon set up a 40-yard field goal try with six seconds left. New York's hopes of victory, however, were extinguished when Trey Junkin (who was called out of retirement by then-Giants coach Jim Fassel four days earlier) fired a low snap that led to an aborted kick attempt and a desperate Hail Mary that wasn't answered.
Who could forget the controversial ending to the wild game between the #49ers and the #Giants?— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) January 5, 2023
NY should have had a second chance at the field goal. SF got lucky with the officiating error.
This moment happened on this day in 2003.#Random49ers #FTTB pic.twitter.com/08dceH6IXY
The Giants should have had another chance at a field goal, as pass interference was committed on the play. But the officials incorrectly penalized the Giants for having an illegal player downfield, an error they later acknowledged.
"I still think about it," Junkin told the New York Post in 2012. "The funny thing is I've had over 1,700 punt snaps and had two bad ones. I don't even know how many field goal and extra-point snaps I had and I had four bad ones. Two of them happened in that game. Yeah, I think about them. I'm a perfectionist."
2. Turnover propels Giants to the Super Bowl
The two teams played in a thrilling NFC Championship game back in 2011. In a game that was largely dominated by defense, it was a special teams play that ultimately determined which team would advance to Super Bowl XLVI.
In overtime, both teams exchanged punts before the 49ers forced another Giants punt . But Kyle Williams' fumbled Steve Weatherford's second punt of overtime, giving the Giants possession on the 49ers' 24-yard-line. Three consecutive Ahmed Bradshaw set the stage for Lawrence Tynes' 41-yard field to sent the Giants to the Super Bowl.
The Giants received a gritty effort that day from quarterback Eli Manning, who threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns. His favorite target that day was wideout Victor Cruz, who caught 10 passes for 142 yards.
OTD 2012— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 22, 2023
° 2011 NFC CHAMPIONSHIP °
The #Giants' Eli Manning endures a savage beating at the hands of the #49ers (20 QB hits, 6 sacks), but throws for 316 yards and 2 TDs as New York triumphs in overtime in the mud and rain of San Francisco, 20-17.
The Giants' fifth NFC title pic.twitter.com/pO3upS2QGR
1. No three-peat
"There will be no three-peat."
Those words were famously proclaimed by legendary CBS/Fox play-by-play analyst Pat Summerall after Matt Bahr's 42-yard field goal gave the Giants a 15-13 upset win over the defending two-time champion 49ers. In one of the most physical football games ever played, the 49ers suffered a crushing blow when Giants lineman Leonard Marshall knocked Joe Montana out of the game with about 10 minutes left and the 49ers ahead, 13-9. After the Giants cut the deficit to one point, Lawrence Taylor gave his offense the ball back when he recovered 49ers halfback Roger Craig's fumble in Giants territory.
Jeff Hostetler's completions to Mark Bavaro and Stephen Baker, and a pivotal two-yard run by Ottis Anderson on a third-and-1 play, helped set up Bahr's game-winning field goal as time expired. Hostetler, Anderson, Bahr, and the Giants' physical defense each played a role in the Giants' upset win over the Bills in Super Bowl XXV. The loss was the final playoff start for Montana with the 49ers, who fell painfully short of becoming the first team in history to win three straight Super Bowls.