By Robert Weintraub
Candlestick Point is a wind farm where some football occasionally gets played. The stadium built there has gone by many names, most of them corporate in origin. But anyone who has sat in its gusty interior to watch the San Francisco 49ers play knows it only by the name under which it opened in 1960: Candlestick Park.
The Raiders were the first pigskin occupants of the stadium, which was mainly built for the baseball Giants. The Niners moved there in 1971. Monday night marks the final regular-season game to be played at The Stick, as the 49ers will move to their new home in Santa Clara next season. So it seemed like the opportune time to select the 10 greatest football games ever played there.
There were a surfeit of games to choose from. Great moments, such as Steve Young's incredible run against the Vikings in 1988 or Garrison Hearst's monster 96-yard run in OT in 1998 against the Jets, or Jerry Rice's record 127th touchdown in 1994, or Terrell Owens' 20-catch night during Rice's final home game in 2000, didn't quite make the cut.
Remember, this isn't a list of the greatest 49ers moments at Candlestick. It's the 10 best football games ever played out on that windswept spit of land that juts into San Francisco Bay.
10. Young vs. Manning: Oct. 18, 1998
The Niners were 18-point favorites to hammer the 1-5 Colts, but the team from Indy served notice that it was about to heard from in the very near future. Rookie quarterback Peyton Manning hit Marvin Harrison twice for scores after Marshall Faulk raced 65 yards on the first play from scrimmage, giving the Colts a shocking 21-0 lead. Young brought the 49ers back with 17 unanswered points, but then Manning hit Harrison with another bomb to make it 28-17. It was 31-17 when Young led San Francisco to another 17 straight points, winning it late on Wade Richey's field goal. It was an offensive show for the ages featuring several future Hall of Famers.
9. A.C. Shocker: Jan. 9, 1988
The 1987 49ers were perhaps the finest team in franchise history. Led by the nonpareil Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott, the Niners went 13-2 (this was a strike season with replacement players for three games and one completely lost), leading the league in points scored, yards gained and allowed, and were third in points allowed. Few gave the visiting 8-7 Minnesota Vikings any shot in the divisional playoffs.
But they didn't account for the game that Anthony Carter, the explosive Vikes' receiver, would play. He caught 10 passes for 227 yards, and ran for 30 more on a reverse. On a foggy, classic Candlestick afternoon, backup quarterback Wade Wilson led a methodical attack that kept the Niners off the field, finding Carter whenever the Vikings needed a big play. Meanwhile, a ferocious pass rush led by Chris Doleman made Montana so uncomfortable that he would be pulled for the more mobile Young.
Young provided a spark, but it wasn't enough to lead a comeback after a 17-point second quarter boosted Minnesota to a lead it wouldn't relinquish. The 36-24 final remains one of the larger upsets in NFL playoff history.
8. The Victory Lap: Jan. 15, 1995
Steve Young's issue with San Francisco fans is enumerated below in No. 2 -- suffice to say that he wasn't fully accepted as a Niner great until January of 1995, when he led a 38-28 victory over the hated Cowboys (who had beaten the 49ers in the previous two conference title games) for the NFC championship. San Francisco took advantage of a sloppy field to build a surprising 21-0 lead early on, and withstood a Dallas rally, in part due to blatant but uncalled pass interference on 49ers cornerback Deion Sanders late in the game.
When the final gun sounded, Young took a rapturous victory lap to a lengthy ovation from the fans who had marginalized him for the crime of Not Being Joe Montana. Two weeks later, the Niners blitzed the overmatched Chargers in the Super Bowl, cementing Young's legacy.
7. "The Grab": Jan. 14, 2012
This divisional playoff game in January of 2012 looked like it wouldn't be anywhere near this list. The Niners raced out to a 17-0 lead over Drew Brees and the Saints, thanks to an early goal line fumble by Pierre Thomas and strong work from 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. But Brees came back with a pair of second quarter TD passes, setting up a fourth quarter for the ages.
With four minutes left, New Orleans took its first lead when Darren Sproles waterbugged through the secondary for a 44-yard TD reception. But Smith regained the lead with a memorable 28-yard TD run on a designed sweep, a play that seemed destined to be the iconic moment from the game. Instead, Brees hit rookie tight end sensation Jimmy Graham, who shrugged off tacklers en route to a shocking 66-yard touchdown. New Orleans was back in front 32-29 after making the two-point conversion.
That left it to Smith, considered the weak link of a team built on sturdy running and a ferocious defense. But the much-maligned QB found tight end Vernon Davis, who finished with seven catches for 180 yards and a pair of scores, for 47 yards. Then he went to his tight end again, on the "Vernon Post," a new play installed just to exploit his mismatch against the Saints, with nine ticks left. Touchdown, Niners. "Can you feel Candlestick!?" yelled Niners play-by-play voice Ted Robinson. Indeed, witnesses say that was by far the loudest that the old barn has ever been, before or since.
Some call this "The Catch III" but that's too lame for me. Davis called it "The Grab" afterward. That's better than "The Snatch," I suppose. And that 49ers win set up...
6. Williams' Waterloo: Jan. 22, 2012
Sometimes a game becomes memorable due to excellence. Other times, it's futility. In the case of the 2011 NFC Championship Game (played in January 2012), it was the latter. The 49ers went 13-3 thanks to a relentless defense, excellent special teams and mistake-free ball. But in the worst possible way, the latter two elements came back to bite the Niners against the Giants.
Kyle Williams, the son of Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, let a punt hit him for a fumble in the fourth quarter of a game that San Francisco led 14-10. Eli Manning found Mario Manningham for a touchdown to give the Giants the lead.
The Niners, who would go 1-for-13 on third downs in the game, drove to tie the game late and send it to overtime. But after Justin Smith got the Stick roaring with a sack of Manning, Williams was stripped by another Williams -- Jaiquan of the Giants. New York recovered, kicked the winning field goal, and went on to win another Super Bowl, a sequence of events similar to those of 1990.
5. "The Bad Comeback": Dec. 23, 1972
Nine years before the Niners shocked the Cowboys in the playoffs (see below), America's Team pulled off a miracle on Candlestick Point. San Francisco returned the opening kickoff for six, and led 28-13 after three quarters behind three short TD plunges by Larry Schreiber.
Roger Staubach, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, missed much of the season with a separated shoulder, but relieved an ineffective Craig Morton late in this divisional round game. Running a hurry-up offense, and taking play-calling away from coach Tom Landry, Stauback drove Dallas to a field goal, then a touchdown that made it 28-23 with 1:20 to play.
Toni Fritsch, the Cowboys kicker, practiced oddball onside kicks for just such an occasion, and now he lined up as if to kick left. Instead, he twisted at the last moment and squibbed one to the right, caroming the ball off the 49ers' Preston Riley. Mel Renfro recovered for Dallas.
It took just three plays for Stauback to get into the end zone -- a 21-yard scramble, a 19-yard pass, and then a hook route to Ron Sellers for the go-ahead touchdown with 52 seconds left. As would happen after Dwight Clark's grab, there was still time for a counter-comeback. But John Brodie threw an interception, and the Cowboys skipped off the field with a stunning 30-28 win. It was the dawn of Staubach's "Captain Comeback" era in Dallas.
4. The Redemption of T.O.: Jan. 3, 1999
The Cowboys and the Giants have been the most memorable of San Francisco's playoff opponents, but in the 1990s Green Bay was the most feared. With good reason, as Brett Favre and company had eliminated the Niners three straight times, including the previous year in the NFC Championship Game. So when the Pack came to the Stick in the wild-card round of the 1998 playoffs, the Bay Area held its breath. Making the game even more emotional was the uncertainty surrounding coach Steve Mariucci's future with the team, as well as the sense that aging stars Rice and Young were finishing their storied San Francisco careers (Young retired at season's end, Rice lasted one more year).
So when Terrell Owens' slapstick performance (he fumbled and dropped four passes, including an easy touchdown) seemed to be costing the 49ers the game, a poignant sense of loss settled over Candlestick. Especially when the Packers took the lead 27-23 on the first play after the two-minute warning on a touchdown pass from Favre to Antonio Freeman.
But Young, who had been held in check passing by the Packers 8-man coverage schemes, finally found a rhythm on the game's final drive, marching the Niners down the field. The home team got a huge break when Rice clearly fumbled with 39 seconds left, but the apparent Packers recovery was waved off by referee Jerry Markbreit. There was no replay rule then, though TV viewers clearly saw that the green and gold had been jobbed.
In the final seconds, the 49ers were at Green Bay's 25-yard line. Mariucci called 3 Jet All Go. Owens ran unhindered up the seam, and at last held on at the goal line as he was sandwiched by two defenders, scoring the TD that gave San Francisco a 30-27 win.
Owens found Mariucci in the chaos, and wept on his shoulder.
3. "The Good Comeback": Jan. 5, 2003
When San Franciscans refer to memorable comebacks in the playoffs, this 2002 wild-card playoff tilt against the Giants brings smiles, unlike the frowns that No. 5 on this list elicits. New York was hot at season's end and seemed primed for a deep postseason run (sound familiar?). Giants QB Kerry Collins hit Amani Toomer for three touchdown passes, helping New York to a commanding 38-14 lead.
Jeff Garcia was sometimes known as a "poor man's Steve Young," and if that nickname flatters him, he certainly channeled Young in the final 19 minutes or so of this game. He hit Owens, who spent the fourth quarter giving fire-and-brimstone speeches to his teammates, for a TD late in the third quarter, then scrambled for a score early in the fourth.
With the score 38-33 and three minutes left, New York missed a field goal (warning--foreshadow alert!). Garcia drove the Niners to the go-ahead score in just under two minutes, finding Tai Streets to make it 39-38 (the TD and the failed two-point conversion were marred by fights involving Owens and Giants safety Shaun Williams, who was ejected). But a big kickoff return helped New York get into position for a game-winning field goal try.
Enter long snapper Trey Junkin, signed that week as an injury replacement. He fired a bad snap to holder Matt Allen, who went into "Fire" mode, trying to complete a pass downfield. Rich Seubert, an eligible tackle on the play, was alone downfield as Allen's throw wobbled his way. Chike Okeafor caught up and leveled Seubert, clear pass interference that went uncalled by the refs (wrongly, as the NFL later admitted). Okeafor had lowered his head in apparent guilt, but then looked up to see the home sideline celebrating one of the wildest wins in NFL history.
2. "There Will Be No Three-peat!": Jan. 20, 1991
The two-time defending Super Bowl champs had already beaten the New York Giants in 1990 at The Stick, a 7-3 Monday Night Football bloodbath that was as compelling as it was low-scoring (Note--no stadium has hosted MNF as often as Candlestick Park. Monday will mark the 36th time that ABC or ESPN has shown up to end the NFL week). Two months later, the G-men returned for the NFC Championship Game. It was another brutal affair, typified by the moment when Leonard Marshall blind-sided Montana late in the fourth quarter, a shot that removed Joe Cool from the game and his senses (Pat Summerall would memorably intone on the CBS telecast, "The report on Montana from the sideline...he says, 'Everything hurts.") Concussed, and with a broken finger, Montana was done for the day.
His backup, Young, entered with the Niners ahead 13-12. But he earned antipathy from Montana loyalists when Roger Craig was stripped by Erik Howard, with Lawrence Taylor recovering the fumble. Young was faultless, but angry 49er fans would blame his lefty handoff, or his mere presence, for the turnover. "Drinking the Kool-Aid" is an odious cliché these days, but it had its (sports) birth in the Bay Area, from Montana worshippers who wouldn't give Young a chance. If Joe served those fans poisoned Kool-Aid, a la Rev. Jim Jones, they would gladly drink it down.
With another shot, Hostetler drove the Giants into field goal range, and Matt Bahr hit his fifth kick of the day as time elapsed. Summerall, the former Giants kicker, would exult "There will be no three-peat!" as The Stick fell into shocked silence. New York went on to stun Buffalo and win its second Super Bowl under Bill Parcells.
1. "The Catch": Jan. 10, 1982
As though there could be another choice?
Dwight Clark's leaping grab against Dallas goes down in eternity as one of pro football's greatest moments. The Catch culminated an epic 89-yard drive that mixed five runs and seven passes in what was Bill Walsh's play-calling apogee. "Red Right Tight--Sprint Right Option" was the call on the winning score.
Making the call in the CBS broadcast booth was legendary announcer Vin Scully. Ironically, Scully had been told before the game that this would be his last as the lead broadcaster for the network. John Madden was to be the main analyst, but CBS was undecided whether Scully or Summerall would pair with the Bay Area native and former Raiders coach. After a season-long bakeoff, Summerall was chosen. The NFC Championship Game was Scully's consolation prize. He moved to NBC after the season.
What is less remembered is that the Cowboys, in the game's final 51 seconds, drove into 49ers territory. Drew Pearson caught a pass and appeared ready to break into at least winning field goal range, but was brought down by what today would be called a horse-collar tackle. On the next play, Dallas quarterback Danny White was strip-sacked, and the Niners were off to the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Dallas, on the other hand, saw its first golden era come to end. Not until Jerry Jones bought the team and replaced Tom Landry with Jimmy Johnson would the Cowboys return to the Super Bowl.
Farewell, Candlestick. You may not be missed, but you will be remembered.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for The New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.