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(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Rising to the Occasion

By Michael Eisen

Additional photography by Mike Malarkey

Needing to get the ball back late in the NFC Championship Game, Giants defensive tackle Erik Howard forced 49ers running back Roger Craig to fumble, and linebacker Lawrence Taylor recovered it in mid-air.

Because of the fantastic finish that followed, and the Lombardi Trophy displayed in their office lobby, it's easy to forget the Giants were in ominous straits in the final moments of the 1990 NFC Championship Game.

They trailed the two-time defending Super Bowl champion 49ers in Candlestick Park, 13-12. And they didn't have the ball.

With about three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Roger Craig's five-yard sweep to the right gave the Niners their only rushing first down of the game at the Giants' 40. One more San Francisco first down would push the Giants close to the brink of defeat. Two more would all but guarantee they would fly back to New Jersey, instead of to Tampa for Super Bowl XXV.

The game turned on the next snap. Craig took a handoff from Steve Young and ran up the middle. Nose tackle Erik Howard was knocked off his feet by center Jesse Sapolu, but was strong enough to hit Craig and force him to fumble. The ball popped right into the hands of Lawrence Taylor, who was tackled at the 43 with 2:36 left. The game's only turnover gave the Giants the ball – and new life.

Howard has a large photo of the biggest play he made in his 11-year NFL career in an honored spot in his Texas home.

"It's apropos that my biggest play, sort of my marquee play, is one that most folks didn't know I even made until the game was over," Howard said. "Bill (Parcells) met me on the bus and said, 'Hey, I heard that was you that made that play, super.'

"I'm the nose tackle at the bottom of the pile, so I'll take it. But I do remember that sort of seminal moment before the ball was snapped. It was a real feeling of desperation. It was a dire situation for us, and I remember thinking prior to the snap, 'Somebody's gotta make a play here.' It was one of those slow motion moments. Walking up to the ball, I see (left guard Guy) McIntyre and Sapolu, they have their splits cheated down, so I know it's an inside run. You get in, you see the heavy fingers, it's a double team, so you go back to basics and play the technique, which is what I did. And it worked out. I busted through, there's Roger Craig, I knew that I had made the tackle. I just thought I tackled him behind the line, and then I see L.T. get up and run off with the ball.

It's difficult to discern what Howard enjoyed more – the play itself or its immediate aftermath in the stunned stadium.

CRAIG FUMBLE

"The best part of that whole thing was walking to the sidelines and it was just stunned silence," Howard said. "In Candlestick, the benches were so close to the stadium seats behind us, and I could hear all the obnoxious remarks that these guys were yelling at me. Walking over to the sideline after that play and seeing that dumbfounded look, it went dead silent and everybody in the stadium knew, 'Oh no, this is not good.' That was the best part of that whole deal, seeing the shock."

Considering what Howard said, tight end Mark Bavaro's remembrance of the play is ironic.

"It was apropos that it was Lawrence Taylor," he said, "because really, that play won the game for us."

Cornerback Everson Walls has a vivid recall of perhaps the most significant takeaway in Giants history.

"It was a simple play for the Niners, because they felt that they were going to just run out the clock," Walls said. "Erik Howard hit Roger Craig dead on. I mean, dead on as soon as he got the ball. Next thing you know, L.T. (has the ball). It was so frantic at the time, I thought I was seeing things. I'm in the secondary, and I see L.T. get up with the ball and I just assumed that Roger Craig was down. It was kind of hard to see in the fray and when L.T. came up with the ball, I was very hesitant to celebrate. When they called it that way, I knew it was over, because we had the best clutch kicker in the league."

Not from 60 yards. The Giants still had to move the ball close enough for Matt Bahr to have a chance to win the game. And that they did, driving 33 yards in six plays before Bahr kicked the game-winning 42-yard field goal as time expired. That ended the 49ers' bid to be the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls. One week later, the Giants defeated the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV, 20-19.

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