Legendary Days: The 1990 NFC Championship Game – The Death of Camelot

There is an old axiom when it comes to boxing when you hear someone say “styles make great fights” meaning opposing styles colliding provide great theater. Never was this more evident when it came to the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants of the 1980’s. The identity of the men from Gotham was a blood thirsty defense led by Lawrence Taylor, arguably the greatest defensive player ever. Joe Montana had ascended to legendary status as he led the NFL’s most efficient offense to 4 Super Bowl titles that decade. They would meet in a fitting crescendo that still has ramifications to this day.

Leonard Marshall clobbers Joe Montana and knocks him out of the 1990 NFC Championship Game. He doesn’t return to action until the final game of the 1992 season against the Detroit Lions.

If you travel to 1978 the Giants and 49ers met in what was a forgettable season for both. New York won 27-10 out in Candlestick during the season’s 4th week. They only won 3 games the rest of the stanza while San Francisco only won twice. Both began by hiring coaches in 1979 in Bill Walsh and Ray Perkins which set the course as each regime rose to prominence in the decade to come.

The next step was the selection of franchise quarterbacks, first Phil Simms in New York in round one then Joe Montana in the third. Each turned to the draft for the same spark on defense a few years later when the Giants selected LB Lawrence Taylor and Walsh’s selection of FS Ronnie Lott both in the 1st round in 1981. Both would later be enshrined in Canton.

Walsh and company ended an 8 year playoff drought with a 13-3 record and homefield advantage as Montana and company had come of age. New York defeated Dallas 13-10 to earn their first trip to the NFL postseason in 18 years. Then after a 27-21 upset of the defending NFC Champion Eagles in the wildcard round, New York was one step away from the NFC Championship Game and traveled west to face San Fran.

Going into the game the question was could NFL Defensive Player of the year Lawrence Taylor get to Joe Montana?? Could the finesse passing game take down the Giants’ hard rock defense??

Walsh’s team was shattering the NFL paradigm by passing first to set up the run. Contrary to popular belief was the fact it was San Francisco’s defense ranked #2 to the Giants at #3.

Montana was 20 of 31 for 304 yards for 2 TDs in a 38-24 win under the lights in Candlestick. Next came the NFC Championship with Dallas & The Catch, then a Super Bowl XVI victory and all the prestige that came with it. Walsh became the toast of the league and christened with his “genius” label. Joe became one of the faces of the NFL and would be one for the decade of the 1980’s.

The vanquished?? Well New York Defensive Coordinator Bill Parcell’s unit collapsed giving up a season high 38 points. They had only given up 30 once the entire year up to that point. As is the case when teams come up short in the playoffs, they’re knocked off kilter for a couple of years.

Parcells succeeded Perkins after a 4-5 season in ’82 and was nearly fired after a disastrous 3-12-1 rookie year in ’83. Yet all the while Walsh was one of the NFL’s marquee coaches and his 49ers bounced back and came within a couple penalties from winning the NFC Championship a 2nd time in 3 years. They fell to Washington 24-21 yet the media further spread the moniker they anointed Walsh with….”genius.”

Parcells bristled at the attention Walsh and the 49ers “finesse” approach to the game was getting. It only intensified in ’84 as they went 15-1 and threatened to go undefeated. New York rebounded as Phil Simms finally emerged from the shadows and became a 4,000 yard passer and the Giants returned to the playoffs. Another NFC playoff loss to Joe and the Niners 21-10 relegated the Giants to the NFL’s jr varsity as Walsh and Joe went on to hoist another Lombardi trophy.

However over the years Parcells kept building a team of brute force. Although they had been effective he drafted 6-4 250lb OLB Carl Banks who was a blue chip strong side ‘backer. Brought in 288 lbs DE Leonard Marshall to replace a 259lb Gary Jeter. He kept building upon his defense and relying on a straight forward power rushing attack.

Finally in the 1985 playoffs, the Giants #2 ranked defense held Montana and the 49er offense out of the endzone for the first time in a 17-3 Wildcard win at home. For the first time ever Parcells and the Giants beat the Niners in the 80’s and in the locker room he scoffed “What do you think now about that west coast offense?” In a bit of irony he wound up coining the name Walsh’s offense would come to be known forever.

However the Giants were manhandled in Chicago 21-0 to the eventual champion Bears. Both teams were built in the same old school fashion. You win with brute force on the line of scrimmage with a heavy front 7 and a strong offensive line with an offense that relied on the run. Yet the Giants sent alarm bells off all around the NFL when they already had a strong defense yet spent their first 6 picks in the first 3 rounds all on defense.

They fortified their defensive line with 6’4 280 lbs DE Erik Dorsey, NT Eric Howard who stood 6’4 275, 250 lb ILB Pepper Johnson along with crafty CB Mark Collins who was nearly 5-10 200 lbs. Collins turned into one of the Giant defense’s greatest assets as he blanketed Jerry Rice and was the best in history covering him. This gave the Giants a tremendous advantage for years to come.

Jim Burt knocking Joe Montana out with a concussion in their 49-3 rout in the ’86 playoffs.

In the ’86 playoffs the Giants defense had come of age and starting with a 49-3 devastation of San Francisco in the NFC Divisional Round, it became clear the pendulum had completely swung. Jim Burt knocked Joe Montana out with seconds to go in the 1st half as Taylor returned an interception 34 yards to balloon the score to 28-3. In an embarrassing fashion Walsh’s squad was hammered into submission. Physically beat down unlike any game they had seen since they became one of the league’s elite a few years before.

This forced the 49ers to finish what they started in the ’85 draft fortifying their lines with bigger players to deal with the Bears and Giants. It came to fruition as the Niners went on to win Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV after the ’88 and ’89 seasons. Walsh had stepped down after the XXIII championship and former DC George Seifert took over head coaching duties. Offensive Coordinator Mike Holmgren began to be recognized as the 49er offense elevated their play to one of near perfection. Walsh’s legend only grew even in his departure for creating the offensive system which allowed his 49ers to become the team of the decade.

Going into 1990 pundits were debating not only were the 49ers the best ever team but was Joe Montana the best ever quarterback?? The same could be said of Jerry Rice as he had assaulted the record books and also had been a Super Bowl MVP. On their way to back to back championships they had set the NFL record with 18 consecutive road wins. Now they had the chance to win 3 straight Super Bowls where it would leave no doubt. They began the season with a 10-0 record and…

Waiting for them who also began 10-0 was the Giant team that had learned how to win from the 49ers and had taken it up a level. Now the more powerful rebuilt 49ers who had a 2-3 record (0-2 in the playoffs since ’85) staring them down. Were they lucky they hadn’t met the Giants in the playoffs in both ’88 and ’89?? Would they even have won back to back had New York had a shot at them??

The Chancellor definitely doesn’t think they would have.. yet I digress

In week 12 each team was 10-1 when they met in San Francisco on a Monday Night. In the 2nd highest watched MNF in history the 49ers beat the Giants 7-3 in a slugfest where the Giants inability to score a touchdown on offense did them in. In 3 shots inside the redzone they could only score 1 field goal. Yet to a man the Giants relished another shot at San Francisco. Finally they would have their chance in the NFC Championship Game. For the decade the playoff record between the two stood at 2-2 and they would meet in the last chance to halt “Camelot’s” greatest procession into history.

In the collective gasp after the Leonard Marshall hit you knew everything had changed. The silence that befell Candlestick Park as Montana writhed in pain for several minutes was palpable. Unlike most games where the network would take a commercial break, a nationwide audience sat glued to the football version of a tragic event. The greatest quarterback whose nimble feet that deftly dodged trouble in and out of the pocket forever in January’s past had been viciously taken down. The Camelot Bill Walsh so eloquently stated of that era ended in that moment.

The final kick by Matt Bahr for the 15-13 win was just icing on the cake made by a ferocious defense in one of the greatest games in NFL history.

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A more visceral look:

The era closed with the Giants holding a 3-2 edge in postseason games although the Niners were team of the decade. Over the next 27 years coaches from both sides made it to the Super Bowl 15 times with Bill Belichick (9) Tom Coughlin (2) Mike Holmgren (3) and Jon Gruden (1). This doesn’t include Bill Parcells’ 2nd Super Bowl triumph 1 week after this game vs Buffalo in XXV. Much has been made of the Bill Walsh coaching tree but take a look at the one stemming from Parcells’ group. Its second to none and it all started with a championship win over Camelot in 1990.

Looking back each team had elevated the other and by the time the decade concluded they were head and shoulders above other teams. However the two contrasting styles made for great theater and one where most people forget who finished with the upper hand.

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3 thoughts on “Legendary Days: The 1990 NFC Championship Game – The Death of Camelot

  1. Excellent breakdown in the lineage of these NFC titans and how remarkable this rivalry was… these teams thoroughly much to my dismay dominated the AFC. Walsh is the father of the WCO but I enjoyed NYG sheer brute force… I learned that brute force will always defeat speed and timing…

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  2. Lucky to “avoid” the Giants in ’88 & ’89?

    I don’t know…the ’89 Forty Niners are quite a special, Historic, with-limited-argument ‘Mt Rushmore’ team! They may have won some close games, and some against weak competition, but doesn’t the same apply a bit to the ’78 Steelers? And like that very also-Historic team from 11 years prior, they were still a true-blue regular season juggernaut just the same, still better than their 14-2 mark indicated, and once the playoffs began – MAN did they prove it by jacking-it-up some more and go full lights-out beast-mode!! Decimating a Floyd Peters defense for a second straight year and then trouncing a rival Robinson Rams team that almost swept them in ’89, who normally beat them in Candlestick at the time! Oh, and then beating Reeves/Elway/Wade Phillips, 55-10, in what to this day is still the most-lopsided Super Bowl ever!!

    And despite the 10-6 finish in ’88, once the playoffs began, you may as well say that they were ALREADY the ’89 version (or, better yet, once the 6-5 start was out the way)! They blast the #1 defense and then go to bitter cold Chicago and club a solid 12-4 squad that – though not what they were three years earlier, Buddy Ryan long gone – still had enough Super Bowl Shuffle-leftoverture in the tank to possibly hoist another Lombardi if, however, not as dominantly as in ’85.

    Sure enough, the G-men give SF much better games in ’88 or ’89, but in my opinion they were merely good teams but not great as they were in ’86 and would be again in ’90. Tuna, I believe, actually stated that he thinks his ’89 installment was his best ever. Parcells knows beat, but it still to me is pretty hard to believe despite they winning the division and finishing 2nd-seed at 12-4. On MNF, SF opened up a 24-7 lead on them before closing things out at 34-24, Rams convincingly beat them in LA and – again like in ’88 – Eagles sweep them! Yes, Buddy Ball simply had Tuna’s #, not necessarily an overall ‘better’ team, but still. San Fran beats G-men again by 10 in a hypothetical ’89 playoff match, I think.

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    • While it’s true the Eagles did have the Giants number, New York had San Francisco’s. Yes the 49ers were lucky they didnt have to face a Giants team that beat them 3 straight times in the playoffs. If this wasn’t important you wouldn’t have mentioned how often the Eagles beat New York.

      In most instances, history has the chance to be burned into our memories where when we think back to the moment games were played, one team can seem invincible. Think back to 2011 and the 15-1 Packers losing to Eli Manning in the playoffs. The 15-1 Vikings in ’98 losing in the NFC Championship to Atlanta. Those teams were going to finish like those ’89 Niners and oops… didnt quite make it.

      Yet the passage of time and reading about the 14-2 Niners invincibilty grows each year in stature. Those of us who weren’t 49er fans clearly know what a threat the Giants were and it played out the following year as the football God’s decreed. No matter how a 49er fan tries to soften that blow. It played out on a 100 yard stage in front of millions. To the victor goes the spoils and in this epic theater New York won the playoff battle 3-2. Give them their due as this was the only championship game battle between the two and the only road victory in their playoff series. Give them their due.

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