NO ESCAPE FROM NEW YORKMONTANA CAN ONLY WATCH FROM SIDELINESAS AN ERA ENDS

SAN FRANCISCO — On one sideline, the miracle man stood alone, watching, his back stiff, his hand throbbing, 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. A group of New York Giants dropped to its knees in a small circle, 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 field, with four seconds left in the best game of the playoffs, Matt Bahr lined up the 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 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 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, naturally, in the fourth quarter. Like any good theater, this NFC championship rose in drama until, in the end, it was like two buffalo trying to stampede through a single gate. They butted. They bit. They pounded. And finally, between the Giants and 49ers, the two best teams in the NFC, it came down to a 42-yard kick, watched by one aching legendary quarterback, and ignored by a group of praying reserves, on their knees.

The kick went up. The kick was good. The prayer group leapt to its feet.

Giants win.

End of an era.

“This was a heavyweight championship fight,” said an elated 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 an historic threepeat in the big game. Heavyweight? Marshall should talk. It was he who delivered the blow to the back on Montana, a blow that bruised Montana’s sternum and broke a bone in his 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 hit — and another fourth-quarter slam by New York nose tackle Erik Howard that popped the ball loose from Roger Craig — those were the crunching moments that changed football history.

As a result, there will be no threepeat in next Sunday’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. Hostetler gets starring role

“We’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 backup to Montana, the guy who almost got the lead in this NFL version of “A Star Is Born.” Had the 49ers won, he would have replaced the injured Montana in the Super Bowl next week. So San Francisco could have tried to make history with a twist — an understudy playing the glamour position.

Instead, that role will go to Hostetler, a garbage-heap quarterback who took over the Giants last month when Phil Simms went down and now, in New York, they’re saying “Phil who?” From the outset, Hostetler stepped on the Candlestick grass and seemed to absorb 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. He was dead. You kept looking for the stretcher.

But somehow, Hostetler hobbled off. By the next possession, he 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. He was running? With that knee? The clock was ticking and he was driving his troops downfield, scrambling, steering the miracle, and suddenly, Jeff Hostetler, 29, was Joe Montana.

Jeff Hostetler?

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

And the 49ers aren’t.

End of an era. Running game is different

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. But that’s a lot of talk. Hey. They did go 14-2 during the regular season, remember? The only significant difference between this team and the ones before was its sudden inability to run the football. And this hurt. 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 failed.

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: with 2:36 remaining, and possession all that mattered for the 49ers, Craig took the handoff from Young and headed into the pile of bodies. Howard popped him, square on the ball. It squirted loose, Lawrence Taylor recovered, and the Giants came back from the dead.

And now they go to Tampa.

New York against Buffalo, for all the marbles? It is not a matchup that anyone predicted. But it has possibilities. After all, they played each other on Dec. 15 (Buffalo won, 17-13) and, ironically, that was the game in which Simms went down and Hostetler shook the dust and began his career over again. Besides, did you see that fake punt the Giants ran late in the fourth quarter Sunday — which got them 30 yards, led to a field goal, and ultimately, the chance to win it? Any team with guts like that can’t be counted out.

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, Montana, Rice, Lott, Craig, Carter, Rathman. They have been champions in the highest esteem, they earned everything they got. They could win just about any game; they just couldn’t win all of them.

“It was our obligation to prevent them from making history,” said Howard, grinning in the Giants’ locker room, like a rebel who just overthrew the king.
“Let some other team set the record now, not the 49ers.”

End of an era.

So it shall be.

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