Nobody thought the San Francisco 49ers had it in them. Nobody imagined their 24-point hole was anything but a grave.
Nothing in their inconsistent season, or in their first 40 minutes against the New York Giants, suggested the Niners were capable of the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.
But as the Giants collapsed around them, Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens measured up to their franchise's greats in one of the most exciting episodes in the 49ers' long playoff history.
Garcia hit Tai Streets with a 13-yard touchdown pass with 1 minute left, and the Giants botched the snap on a 41-yard field-goal attempt as time expired Sunday in San Francisco's 39-38 victory.
Things got ugly late, as Owens and New York safety Shaun Williams got offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, and Williams was ejected for throwing a punch at Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry.
Garcia and Owens led the way for the 49ers, though Giants long snapper Trey Junkin also helped out with two terrible snaps in a monumental momentum shift that wrung every drop of emotion out of a sellout crowd at Candlestick Park.
``As long as you live, you might never see a game better than that,'' said 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, whose job might have been saved. ``It's kind of hard to remember everything right now, but I remember how it ended.''
The 49ers' rally was the biggest in NFC playoff history. Only Buffalo's 32-point comeback in a 41-38 victory over Houston in January 1993 was bigger.
Right down to a confusing, contentious ending, it was a game with more twists, turns and dramatic moments than most teams would see in years - from Amani Toomer's three touchdown catches to Kerry Collins' impressive performance, from Garcia's impossibly gutsy leadership to the fight that broke out at the height of the tension.
The 49ers (11-6) trailed 38-14 with 4 minutes left in the third quarter, but they scored 25 straight points on two TD passes and a scoring run by Garcia, as well as two 2-point conversion catches by Owens.
``It's one of those things where you're in the park playing with your buddies,'' said Garcia, who got his first playoff victory. ``You try to emulate what the great ones do, what Joe Montana and Steve Young did. Now I'm that guy. Maybe some kid wants to be Jeff Garcia. That's an awesome feeling.''
Garcia was incredible, but Owens was just as good. He caught TD passes of 76 and 26 yards, and inspired his teammates to victory with fiery speeches at halftime and in the fourth-quarter huddles - a remarkable development for a Pro Bowl player who has few close friends on the team.
``I asked everybody who could make plays,'' Owens said. ``I told them I could. Other guys chimed in. They could. I said, 'We have a lot of weapons. We have to play with poise. Time is on our side.'''
Garcia went 27-of-44 for 331 yards and three TDs. He also rushed for 60 yards, including a 14-yard score on the first play of the fourth quarter. Two of Garcia's TD throws went to Owens, who had nine catches for 177 yards - most of them while dragging defenders or sprinting past them after catches.
After Garcia drove the Niners 68 yards in just over 2 minutes for Streets' score, Collins got New York to the San Francisco 23 with 6 seconds left. But Junkin, a 41-year-old journeyman signed earlier in the week, made a low snap that Matt Allen couldn't handle.
Allen threw a desperate pass that fell incomplete, although it was only third down and he might have been able to spike the ball and given the Giants another shot at a field goal.
After New York was penalized for illegal men downfield on the play, the Niners leaped, sprinted and collapsed onto the field in a raucous celebration before an exhausted Candlestick crowd.
``I tried to make the perfect snap instead of a good snap. You can't do that,'' Junkin said. ``This is something I've done for 32 years, but not anymore.''
The 49ers advanced to face Tampa Bay next Sunday, but the Buccaneers will have no idea which San Francisco team they'll face: the one that stumbled through the first 40 minutes, or the one that flattened the Giants with an unbelievable rally.
``This is about the worst loss I have ever felt in my entire life,'' said Giants coach Jim Fassel, whose team made the playoffs with four straight victories. ``I'm not going to get over this one for a while.''
Though New York's collapsing defense should bear most of the blame for the debacle, the Giants (10-7) finally were undone by Junkin. He put in his retirement papers last month, but was signed to replace injured Dan O'Leary.
``I was watching all these bad snaps and wondering: `How many games are you going to lose over a snap?' It was frustrating,'' Junkin said earlier this week.
On the final play, Junkin's snap was low and away. Allen never had a chance to set it up for Matt Bryant.
Collins was 29-of-43 for 342 yards and four touchdowns, guiding New York to a lead that seemed insurmountable, while Toomer caught eight passes for 136 yards. Tiki Barber, who had 115 yards rushing and 62 yards receiving, blew a kiss to the stunned Candlestick crowd after he scored to put New York up 35-14.
But the Niners rallied with a purpose and poise that they've rarely shown this season. Owens caught a TD pass late in the third quarter to start the rally, and made big catches on every drive - right up to the final minutes, when Garcia found Streets in the left corner for a score.
``You never think you have it won until there's no time on the clock,'' Collins said. ``I didn't sense on the sidelines that we thought we had it, and we just needed to coast the rest of the game.''
Jeremy Shockey, the Giants' brash rookie tight end, taunted the 49ers' sideline after just his second reception - and threw ice water in the direction of heckling fans in a moment of frustration on the New York sideline.
But Shockey, who had seven catches for 68 yards, dropped a potential TD pass late in the third quarter, forcing New York to kick a field goal.
The Giants never scored again - and San Francisco rolled into the conference semifinals.
The final seconds were exhausting and confusing. With 3:01, Bryant - kicking out of a poor hold, thanks to another poor snap by Junkin - badly missed a 42-yard field goal on fourth-and-1.
Garcia took over, converting two straight third downs for the NFL leaders in that category. Tight end Eric Johnson caught a 25-yard pass to the New York 25, and Garcia scrambled 12 yards to set up his scoring pass to Streets.