Milestone Games, the most significant NFL game of each decade: the Nineties.

Milestone Games, the most significant NFL game of each decade: the Nineties.
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The Nineties Milestone Game – Giants deny the ‘threepeat’

Selecting the ‘Milestone Games’ gives us an opportunity to look back over the 100 year history of the NFL and select the most meaningful match-up of each decade.

We started with the Galloping Ghost in the 1920’s, and the first playoff game in the 1930’s. Then onto the popularization of the T-formation in the 1940’s. The ‘greatest game ever played’ in the 1950’s, one of the great upsets in Superbowl III from the 1960’s. A franchise founding game for the Steelers with the immaculate reception in the 1970’s. And latterly another franchise founding game in the 1980’s, this time for the 49ers with ‘The Catch’.

We will be moving all the way to the 2010’s and will explore the games that made the NFL what it is today. Now we are into the Nineties. An era that saw the NFL become even more dominant in the US sporting landscape.

With that in mind we will look at a game that changed who was at the top of the pile in the NFL. This was a game that could have set the dominant team of the previous decade onto a threepeat. Instead it would prove to be the last hurrah of Joe Montana’s time in San Franciso, and a victory for the blue collar approach of the New York Giants.

This is all very subjective of course, and you may well disagree. If you do, let us know in the comments below, or contact us at Ninety-Nine Yards.

Some Key Games in the Nineties

As with every decade, the Nineties saw some key games. Games that you could argue were key to the solidifcation of the NFL’s prominence in the national psyche. Some key moments that really define both the era and the ever-increasing popularity of the league itself.

Wide Right

The Buffalo Bills made four consecutive Super Bowl games from 1990-93. They lost them all. But Super Bowl XXV was the most disappointing loss of all. This was the Bills most competitive tilt at the Lombardi trophy and with seconds remaining they could have won.

Scott Norwood lined up a 47 yard game winning Field Goal. It was at the edge of Norwood’s length. As it happened, he hit far enough, just “Wide right”, and the Giants and their fans celebrated instead.

For some this could have been the defining game of the Nineties. After all, if Scott Norwood had hit the winning Field Goal we would remember this all so differently.

Bill Belichick’s defensive plan wouldn’t have made its way to the Hall of Fame. We’d be talking about how the Bills point a minute Offence only needed 20 minutes to win the game. And, if the Bills had won, would they have built a Dynasty instead of being the only team to lose 4 consuecutive Super Bowls? The confidence from that first win might have inspired them. And we would be talking about Buffalo and not Dallas as the team of the early Nineties.

But these are all moot points. The Bills did lose, and they were only playing the Giants because New York had won our milestone game choice anyway.

The Wildest Wildcard

Buffalo recorded the greatest comeback in NFL history on January the 3rd 1993. The two time defending AFC champions had finished 11-5 but lost out on first place in the East Division to the Miami Dolphins.

Their last game of the 1992 season was a 27-3 defeat away to the Houston Oilers. In that game the Bills starting QB Jim Kelly had gone down injured. Backup Frank Reich had stepped in and was promptly picked off twice.

As fate would have it the 10-6 Oilers were slated to travel to Buffalo in this Wild Card game. Warren Moon completed 19 of 22 passes for 220 yards and four touchdowns in the first half. The Oilers dominated the Bills in every aspect of the game. They had the ball for two thirds of the first half. By halftime they led 28-3.

In the third the Oilers extended their lead to 35-3 after a pick six thrown by Reich. After that the Bills stormed back, scoring 21 points in 10 minutes.

The whole momentum changed and it went from being the Oilers game to lose to being the Bills game to win.

The Bills eventually went ahead 38-35 before the Oilers tied the game and forced overtime. But the Bills intercepted Moon, and won the game 41-38.

Known as ‘The Comeback’ this win was made more impressive by the Bills losing Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas to a second half hip injury. Buffalo won 10 playoff games in the Nineties but noe were sweeter than this.

The Cowboys take over

January 17th 1993 and an NFC championship game that reinforced a changing of the guard in the NFC and the NFL as a whole. Montana was gone from the 49ers and now led by Steve Young they faced the rising Dallas Cowboys at Candlestick Park.

Although Young was the league MVP, and offensive player of the year the ‘Niners were outgunned 30-20 by the rising ‘Boys. Dallas forced four turnovers and picked 10 points up from them – the difference in this game.

Although San Francisco would be back and win Super Bowl XXIX, this was a changing of the guard moment. This win, overcoming San Francisco would be the gatweay to Dallas winning three NFL titles in four years. and bceoming the NFL team of the early Nineties.

The Fake Spike

November the 27th 1994 saw Dan Marino run an iconic game winning play. This Week 12 matchup between AFC East division rivals was pivotal. The Jets set the pace early building a 17-0 lead before Marino found his rhythm and brought the Dolphins back.

The Dolphins forced three fumbles and intercepted Boomer Esiason three times in the second half, but were still down 24-21 with 22 seconds left in the game. 

With time ebbing and a ball spike seemingly inevitable to stop the clock for a game tying Field Goal, Marino stood at the Jets 8 and shouted “Clock! Clock! Clock!” and motioned for the spike.

The Jets defense lined up inlacklustre fashion and Marino caught them off guard, noticing an opening, faking the spike and throwing the ball to Mark Ingram for the game-winning touchdown.

It’s been done since. And you can bet every time it happens the commentary team will refer back to Marino and this fanous Nineties game.

Captain Comeback falls short

The Steelers beat the colts for the AFC title on January the 14th 1996. And what a game it was. Former NFL head coach, Jerry Glanville’s words to the television viewers of Channel 4’s broadcast of the 1995 AFC Championship game were “Don’t leave your seats, this is going to come down to the last play!” He wasn’t wrong.

Most had predicted the Steelers would be here at the start of the season, they had fallen three yards short of the winning score in the championship game the year before. Now they were looking to take the next step.

In 1995 the Colts were less expected. After an 8-8 1994 season they were a surprise package in these playoffs.

Quarterback Jim Harbaugh began to be referred to as ‘Captain Comeback’ due to his ability to pull games out of the fire seemingly by will alone. He was named the NFL’s “Comeback Player Of The Year” and was the league’s top-rated passer too.

A miracle win on the final weekend put the Colts in the playoffs. They then knocked out defending AFC Champions San Diego and won against the AFC’s number one seeded team Kansas City.

After exchagning Field Goals, a controversial touchdown by Kordell Stewart, who may have stepped out of bounds or was pushed out, ignited the game.

The Steelers took the lead with 1:34 left in the game. Colts quarterback ‘Captain Comeback’ Jim Harbaugh had his chance. The Colts got the ball to the Pittsburgh 29-yard line with five seconds left. But a Hail Mary pass bounced off of receiver Aaron Bailey’s chest before hitting the ground.

Elway Gets his ring

January the 25th 1998 was a big date for both John Elway and the American Football Conference. John Elway had been to the Super Bowl three times before this, and he’d never won any of them. In fact the Broncos had been blown out 136-40 over the space of 4 years.

The culmination coming in a 55-10 humbling at the hands of the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV, just one year before our Milestone game. This was part of a wider pattern as AFC teams lost 13 consecutive Super Bowl contests.

That all changed here for Elway, and the AFC, as the Broncos won a close one 31-24 against the defending NFL champion Packers. Since this Nineties turning point the AFC has gone 15-8 in the Super Bowl.

Wide Left

January the 17th 1999 saw the heavily favoured 15-1 Minnesota Vikings host the 14-2 Atlanta Falcons for a shot at the Super Bowl.

Four time Super Bowl losers Minnesota felt this was their year as they became only the third team in NFL history to have 15 regular season wins in a season and had gone into the playoffs as Super Bowl favourites.

Records tumbled for the Vikings team. They put up a then record 556 points during the season and rookie receiver Randy Moss caught 17 TD passes – the most ever by a rookie. One particular area of success was on special teams where Gary Anderson became the first kicker in NFL history to convert every Field Goal and extra point he attemepted. A stat that would come back to haunt the team.

With Minnesota ahead 27-20 and the Falcons on the comeback trail the Vikings had the ball in the final four minutes. Anderson hit a ball wide left on a 38 yard attempt and opened the door for Atlanta. The Falcons gleefully danced through, tying the game in regulation. Then Morten Anderson hit the game-winning kick to send Atlanta to their first Super Bowl.

The 1990’s Milestone Game itself

January 20th 1991. New York Giants 15 San Francisco 49ers 13

Candlestick Park, San Francisco. Attendance 60,750

This contest saw a contrast in styles that made it all the more entertaining. The pass first, short passing attack of the Niners against the smashmouth approach of the Giants.

The Giants D led by Lawrence Taylor were a dominant propostion. The Niners too had long been excellent on the defensive side of the ball. A fact often overlooked in their years of success.

There was a history here too. The 49ers and Giants were meeting in the playoffs for the fifth time in ten years. This one felt epic going in and so it proved. A game for the ages and not just the Nineties.

A Clash of Styles

In the 1981-2 playoffs San Francisco ended an 8 year playoff drought with a 13-3 record and homefield advantage. That same year the Giants returned to the NFL postseason for the first time in 18 years. The two teams duly met in the Divisional round.

Going into that game there was a lot of chatter about whether the Giants D could undo this new Montana/Walsh led offensive plan. Which somewhat overlooked the fact that the Niners had the #2 ranked D and the Giants the #3 ranked D that year.

Montana went 20 of 31 for 304 yards for 2 TDs in a 38-24 win. Then came ‘the catch’ and untimatley a Super Bowl title. Plaudits all round for San Francisco and their new approach.

Bill Parcells, who’s D had given up those 38 points was not a fan of the ‘finesse’ approach of the Niners. So things intensified when he became the Giants head man.

In the 84-85 playoffs the teams met again. This time Montana threw for 209 yards and 3 touchdowns as the Giants were beaten once more 21-10.

“That West Coast Offence”

In the 85/86 season playoffs the Giants hosted their first home playoff game since 1962. Despite the fact that the 49ers recorded 362 yards of total offence, the Giants #2 ranked defence held Montana and the 49er offence out of the endzone for the first time in a 17-3 win.

For the first time ever Parcells and the Giants beat the Niners in the 80’s. In the locker room Parcells was noted as saying “What do you think now about that west coast offence?”

In an ironic twist he created the name Bill Walsh’s offence would come to be known by ever after.

The following year the Giants clubbed the Niners into submission in the playoffs 49-3 on their way to winning Super Bowl XXI.

Walsh and the Niners would respond by beefing up their lines. Success followed with wins in Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV after the ’88 and ’89 seasons. 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 become the first team to win 3 straight Super Bowls.

Would San Francisco convert their Eighties dominance into the Nineties? Or could the Giants in your face traditional style of football halt them?

A brutal confrontation

Both teams had met earlier in the regular season. In week 12 each team was 10-1 when they met in San Francisco on a Monday Night. The 49ers beat the Giants 7-3 in a brutal matchup.

That was just a precursor to the physicality to come in this contest. With the teams tied 2-2 in playoffs over the last decade and the Giants desperate to end the 49ers dominance both teams gave it their all.

San Francisco opened the game with a 10-play, 44-yard drive, but were held to a Field Goal. The Giants responded by driving 69 yards in 15 plays to a Field Goal of their own.

A moslty quiet second quarter saw the teams go into halftime tied at 6-6. Throughout both teams’ D were creating problems for the opposition.

The first offensive play of the second half saw Taylor take a pass from Montana and burst up the sideline for a 61 yard touchdown. New York responded by driving 50 yards and hitting a 46 yard Field Goal.

In the fourth quarter, Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler took a hit to the knees. This seemed to inspire the Ginats D to even greater heights. A momentum changer for the game and the league would follow.

A hit that changed the Nineties NFL destiny

On the 49ers’ next drive, Montana called a pass play on third down. He avoided a hit by Lawrence Taylor, only to be met by a crunching hit from the blindside by DE Leonard Marshall.

If you were watching the game you can probably still recall the collective gasp and then silence around Candlestick Park. Montana who already had a lingering back injury had a finger broken on his throwing hand and was given concussion by the hit.

The Giants outrushed the 49ers 152 yards to 49 for the game and converted key third downs. It was a recipe that led to two more Filed Goals. With four seconds left kicker Matt Bahr knocked through the winning score as time ran out and the Giants won 15–13.

That hit upended the Niners run for three. It would be the next to last time Montana appeared in a San Francisco uniform. Bill Parcells and his defensive coordinator Bill Belichick would mastermind a win in Super Bowl XXV, and once again the NFL moved in a new direction.

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