The expectations were high for Bill Parcells’ 1990 New York Giants football team. New York had won double-digit games the previous two seasons and in 1989 taken the NFC East. Parcells led up a brain trust that included Bill Belichick as defensive coordinator.
36-year old Phil Simms might have been getting long in the tooth at quarterback and perhaps making preliminary plans for his future career as a CBS analyst, but he was still a tough competitor and a mistake-free passer, which made him perfect for a team built on defense and the running game. 33-year old Otis Anderson was the go-to back and Pro Bowler William Roberts was the best on the offensive line.
Defense was the real calling card though, and Belichick orchestrated a unit built around one of the best linebacking groups ever to play the game. Lawrence Taylor was still the league’s most feared blitzing linebacker after ten years in the league and his counterpart on the outside, Carl Banks, was one of the most underrated. On the inside was veteran Pro Bowler Pepper Johnson.
Nose tackle Erik Howard excelled at tying up blockers and enabling the group behind him to make plays. Corners Mark Collins and Everson Walls were as good any cover due in the NFL. What it all added up to was that this team had Super Bowl talent and a brilliant coaching staff to guide them.
The Giants had their work cut out for them in the rugged NFC East. The Philadelphia Eagles had made the playoffs each of the previous two years. They had a ferocious defensive front, led by Reggie White and Jerome Brown, along with an athletic playmaking quarterback in Randall Cunningham. They were coached by Buddy Ryan, father of current NFL head coach Rex and defensive coordinator Rob. Neither of the boys are known for being shy around a camera and we can safely say they got it from the old man.
The Washington Redskins had “The Hogs” on the offensive line, a very talented wide receiver trio of Hall of Famer Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders. They were coached by Joe Gibbs, as circumspect as Ryan was loud, and though the ‘Skins had missed the playoffs the previous two years, they won 10 games in 1989 and Gibbs already had two of what would be three Super Bowl rings for his career.
It added up to an NFC East and that was absolutely brutal at the top and in fact would get tougher as the year went on. Though Dallas had gone 1-15 the prior year, the rebuilding project of Jimmy Johnson would go much faster than anticipated and the Cowboys got to 7-9 before a season-ending injury to second-year quarterback Troy Aikman probably cost them a playoff berth.
In a season that had little margin of error, the Giants were up to the challenge. And they did it by avoiding errors. It started right away with a home game against Philadelphia. After trailing 10-6 at the half, New York rallied on a Simms touchdown pass and then a 68-yard punt return for a TD by fabulous return man Dave Meggett. They eventually got out to a 27-10 lead and hung on 27-20.
The difference in the game is that while Simms made no mistakes, Cunningham was picked off three times and sacked six more. Three of the sacks came from Taylor who put behind the frustration of a training camp contract dispute and was ready to play football.
New York then beat Dallas twice in a three-week span and sandwiched those around a win over a pretty good Miami team, quarterbacked by Hall of Famer Dan Marino and who would make it to the second round of the AFC playoffs in January.
After a bye week was a trip to Washington. Again, the turnover issue was paramount and the combo of Simms and the Giant defense was too much. With Redskin starter Mark Rypien out, Big Blue intercepted Stan Humphries three times. Simms not only made no mistakes, he and receiver Stephen Baker hooked up on a 80-yard touchdown pass and the Giants won 24-20.
Two weeks later Washington made its return trip to the Big Apple and New York got two early touchdowns to build a 14-0 led. The Redskins rallied and closed it to within 14-10 in the third quarter, but again the New York defense was getting turnovers, picking off Humphries three more times, the last one by Walls who took it 28 yards to paydirt for a 21-10 win. The Giants were 3-0 against the best two teams in their division, and had a 9-0 advantage in the interception category.
The undefeated run continued with wins at Indianapolis and at the LA Rams, who were having a disappointing year after reaching the NFC Championship Game in ’89. A 20-0 whitewashing of Detroit moved New York to 10-0 and the sports world was looking ahead to a Monday Night showdown on December 3 in San Francisco. The 49ers were not only the two-time defending Super Bowl champs, they were also 10-0.
But neither team made it to the showdown unscathed. A road trip to Philadelphia the Sunday after Thanksgiving didn’t go well. This time, the defense couldn’t intercept Cunningham and the offense lost two fumbles. New York trailed 14-13 at half, obviously manageable, but frustrating because they missed an extra point. It ended up not mattering, as Philadelphia scored two TDs in a 22-second timeframe and pulled away to a 31-13 win. The 49ers lost to the Rams the same day, but even though New York-San Francisco wasn’t a battle of unbeatens, it was still about the #1 seed in the upcoming NFC playoffs.
Defenses ruled the night. The Giants got a Matt Bahr field goal in the second quarter for a 3-0 lead, but a Montana touchdown pass gave San Fran a 7-3 lead that, believe it or not, stood up to the end. Simms was sacked four times and late in the game had a chance to win it when the team got to the San Francisco 9-yard line at first-and-goal. But they couldn’t punch it in on four tries and Frisco had the inside track to homefield advantage.
After a bounceback win over Minnesota, the Giants lost a hard-fought game at home against Buffalo, the top team in the AFC. The 17-13 defeat wasn’t the worst part of it, even if it did kill any lingering thoughts of homefield advantage and it had to be frustrating coming down in the fourth quarter to the Buffalo 23 and 18-yard lines on two drives, but not being able to finish. What was most damaging about this game is that Simms was knocked out and lost for the year. Backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler would now run the offense for the playoffs.
Though the division crown wasn’t in jeopardy and the last two games of the season were cupcakes against bad teams in the Cardinals and Patriots, it seemed a promising Super Bowl chance was slipping away.
No one in New York was happy just to be in the playoffs, least of all Bill Parcells, and Hostetler was a veteran who’d had 2 ½ games to get acclimated to being the starter. The opponent in the divisional round was the Chicago Bears. They had a great coach on the sideline in Mike Ditka and a future great coach playing quarterback in Jim Harbaugh.
Like the Giants, Chicago was defined by its defense. A lot of the players from the dominant 1985 defense that won the Super Bowl were still there—players like Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael. There were new additions like corner Donnel Woolford and rookie free safety Mark Carrier who’d made the Pro Bowl in his first year.
But in a way this worked to New York’s advantage—the Bears would try to beat them at their own game, and Parcells’ team was simply better at it. They dominated the ground game, to the tune of 194-27. Leading 7-3 after one quarter, they added ten points in the second and a touchdown in each of the last two quarters. A 31-3 rout earned New York a ticket to the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco.
This was not only the matchup everyone had waited for all year, it was really the game everyone had waited on for two years. The Giants and Niners were the top two seeds in 1989, but New York lost a home game in overtime to Los Angeles and missed the chance for the NFC Championship date they now had.
The Niners were at the peak of their dynasty and were favored to win an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl. Joe Montana was running the offense and had a well-balanced package of skill players. Roger Craig was a 1,000 yard rusher and could catch the ball out of the backfield. Jerry Rice was the best to ever play his position at wideout. Montana could also turn to John Taylor on the outside and tight end Brent Jones.
Defensively, San Francisco had future Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott at free safety and pass-rushing dominance in Charles Haley and Kevin Fagan. In the regular season meeting Simms had been sacked four times, twice by Fagan. In the field position game that Giants excelled at, those line of scrimmage battles had to be won.
The game wasn’t a back-and-forth offensive classic by any means, but it was still one of the best games in the history of the NFL playoffs. The teams traded field goals in both the first and second quarters and went to the locker room at 6-6.
In the third quarter a 61-yard strike from Montana to Taylor looked like it might stand up. The Giants chipped away with two more Bahr field goals, but with a one-point lead San Francisco had the ball late and was trying to run out the clock. Montana handed off to Craig. Howard poked the ball free and Lawrence Taylor caught it in the air. New York had life at the San Francisco 43-yard line and Hostetler completed two passes to get them to the 25. On the game’s final play Bahr kicked a 42-yard field goal to win the NFC crown. On a field not known for its smooth kicking surface, the veteran kicker had not only hit five field goals, but three of them had been from 40-plus and one from 38. And the Giants, in spite of not scoring a touchdown in two trips to Frisco, were going to the Super Bowl.
Buffalo rolled through the AFC playoffs, beating Miami and then hammering the then-Los Angeles Raiders 51-10 for the AFC title. Based on their play, the Simms injury and their December win in the Meadowlands, the Bills were the favorite to grab the first Super Bowl win in franchise history.
They ran an aggressive hurry-up offense with Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly calling his own plays and versatile running back Thurman Thomas in the backfield. Other weapons included a tall receiver in Andre Reed, one of the best of the early 1990s and the defense had an elite linebacker in Cornelius Bennett. He was cut in the L.T. mold and at this stage of their careers, Bennett was the better player. On the inside was Shane Conlan, a Pro Bowler and hero of Penn State’s 1986 national championship team. Another Hall of Famer was at defensive end in Bruce Smith. It was easy to see why Buffalo came in as the favorite.
There was only a one-week turnaround this year for the Super Bowl, a rare case of it being scheduled in (other instances of a one-week wait had been strike years and the aftermath of 9/11). The Giants would have likely benefited from the extra prep time. Because while Marv Levy was a fine coach for Buffalo, as his record four straight AFC crowns attests, the Belichick/Parcells duo could have used the time for extra schemes to slow down Kelly’s no-huddle.
But the Giants played their game and ended up with a Super Bowl record 40 minutes of possession time. The teams traded field goals in the first quarter, and then Buffalo opened up a 12-3 lead aided Smith sacking Hostetler for a safety. The quarterback bounced back with a touchdown pass to Baker that made it 12-10 at the half.
Anderson, on his way to a 100-yard night and game MVP honors, scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, but Thomas took it back for Buffalo with a brilliant 31-yard scoring run. The Bills’ back rushed 15 times for 135 yards and even in a losing cause had a good case for game MVP himself. A short Bahr field goal made it 20-19 and late in the game Kelly rallied the Bills from deep in their own end to set up a last-play chance for kicker Scott Norwood.
The field goal would be from 47 yards. With Buffalo’s Rich Stadium being artificial turf, as it is today, Norwood hadn’t made a field goal that long on grass all year—in fact not even close. This one wouldn’t be the first. It sailed wide right and for the second time in New York Giants history, they were Super Bowl champs.