SAN FRANCISCO — This is how an era ends. On one sideline, the miracle man stood all alone, his back stiff, his body racked with pain. For the first time in most people’s memory, Joe Montana could do nothing about the finish of a championship game. Nothing but pray.

And on the other sideline, that is exactly what they were doing. Praying. In a small circle, a group of New York Giants dropped to their knees, cornerback Roger Brown and safety Greg Jackson and a half-dozen others. They didn’t look, they didn’t want to look, they kept their eyes on the ground, mumbling “make it . . . please Lord, let him make it.” And out on the grass, Matt Bahr lined up a last-second field goal that would determine which team boarded a plane for the Super Bowl and which went home to watch “Lonesome Dove.”

Pray. What else could you do? Already it had been a phenomenal game, a real football game, ironically, in this time of global conflict, as much like a war as football gets. Hits had told the story. Painful, throbbing hits — especially to the quarterbacks. A brutal slam on the knee of New York’s Jeff Hostetler that left him lying there like a sack of grain, and a pounding blind-side slam just a few minutes later that left Montana on all fours, trying to catch his breath, unable to move.

“What hurts?” the trainers had asked him.

“Everything,” Montana said.

All this happened in the fourth quarter. Like good theater, this NFC championship rose steadily in drama right to the final moments, until, in the end, it was like two buffalo trying to stampede through a single gate. They butted. They bit. They pounded. And finally, the Giants and 49ers, maybe the two best teams in the NFL, came down to a kick, watched by one aching legendary quarterback, and ignored by a group of praying reserves, on their knees, waiting for the San Francisco crowd noise to tell them the result.

The kick went up. The crowd fell silent. The prayer group leapt to its feet.

Giants win.

End of an era.

“This was a heavyweight championship fight,” said New York defensive lineman Leonard Marshall, after New York upset San Francisco, 15-13 — on five

field goals — to advance to the Super Bowl and squelch the 49ers dreams of a historic three- peat in the big game. Heavyweight? Marshall should talk. It was he who delivered the blow to the back on Montana, a blow that bruised his sternum and broke a bone in his right hand, a blow that kept the miracle man down for a good five minutes, and left his eyes wet and his gaze unsteady.
(“I’m still having a tough time breathing,” Montana said an hour after the game.) That play, and another fourth-quarter slam by New York nose tackle Erik Howard that popped the ball loose from Roger Craig — those were the moments that changed football history.

As a result, there will be no threepeat in next week’s Super Bowl. There will be no No. 16 at quarterback, no Jerry Rice down the sidelines, no outrageous interviews with Bubba Paris. The red and gold are going home. The Super Bowl is now an all-New York affair.

End of an era. W e’ve come so far, so many battles, the enormity of it is hard to put into words right now.” This was Steve Young talking, the back-up to Montana, the guy who almost got the lead in this NFL version of “A Star Is Born.” It might have been fitting if Young had gotten the job done, if the 49ers could have tried to make history with a twist — with the understudy playing the glamour position.

Instead, that role went to Hostetler, a garbage heap quarterback who took over the Giants a month ago when Phil Simms went down and now, in New York, they’re going “Phil who?” From the outset, Hostetler seemed to step on the Candlestick grass and absorb all the magic that Montana usually possesses. Including the magic to heal. When he took that hit with 12 minutes to play, a deadeye crunch to his left knee, courtesy of former teammate Jim Burt, there was no way he was getting up. You kept looking for the stretcher.

Instead, he hobbled off, missed a few plays, and somehow, by the next possession, was back. And running. On the final drive, he scrambled away from the 49ers defense and connected on a long pass to Mark Bavaro. Then he rolled right, ran away again and connected with Stephen Baker. The clock was ticking and he was driving them down field and suddenly, Jeff Hostetler was Joe Montana.

Jeff Hostetler?

“People keep telling me how I can’t do it,” he said afterwards, “but all I know is, I’m going to the Super Bowl.”

And the 49ers aren’t.

End of an era.

A moment here for that. Second-guessers will say that this 49ers team was not as strong as teams past, that it was squeaking by for the last month or so, that it wasn’t worthy of the four Super Bowl rings its players had won. But that’s a lot of talk. Really, the only significant difference between this team and the ones before it was its sudden inability to run the football. Usually a pounding, hard-rushing team, the 49ers of late have gone airborne to make up for their ground deficiencies. And Sunday, when they most needed running backs to save the day, they lost it.

It was Roger Craig’s fumble that finally sunk the 49ers, sent them home to the world of mortality. A shame, really, because Craig has done so much for this team over the years. But he had not been a factor lately, and this play bore it out: when possession was really all that mattered, Craig took a hit on first down, the ball squirted loose, Lawrence Taylor recovered, and the Giants were back in business.

And now they go to Tampa.

The Giants against Buffalo, for all the marbles? It is not a match-up that anyone predicted. But it has possibilities. After all, they played each other on December 15th (Buffalo won, 17-13) and, ironically, that was the game in which Hostetler shook off the dust and began his career over again.

So we’ll see. But this you cannot deny: a Super Bowl without the 49ers is going to seem a little strange, maybe a little incomplete; and maybe that is the highest credit you can pay to this team. We have truly gotten used to them. They have been champions in the highest esteem, earned everything they got. In the end, they just ran out of miracles.

“It was our obligation to prevent them from making history,” said Howard, shaking his head in the Giants locker room, wondering what the weather is like down in Tampa. “Let some other team set the record, not the 49ers.”

So it shall be.

End of an era.

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