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On This Date in Sports December 7, 1980: The Rise of the Niners

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The San Francisco 49ers stage the biggest regular-season comeback in NFL history, overcoming a 35-7 deficit to beat the New Orleans Saints in overtime 38-35 at Candlestick Park. The game would later be viewed as the turning point in the 49ers franchise as they won the Super Bowl a year later. The game also served as the launching of Joe Montana into an NFL legend.

As the 1970s came to a close, the San Francisco 49ers were in disarray, suffering back-to-back 2-14 seasons. A big part of the struggles was a disastrous trade with the Buffalo Bills to land a washed-up O.J. Simpson. Giving up several high draft picks, the Niners had to consider themselves lucky when Notre Dame’s star quarterback Joe Montana slipped through to the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft. Montana played only sparingly in his rookie season. As the 1980 season was ending, Montana was given the reins for the final four games supplanting an inconsistent Steve DeBerg.

The 1980 season was nothing short of a disaster for the New Orleans Saints. The 1979 season had been one of many positives for New Orleans as they finished 8-8, the first time they finished .500 or better in their 13th season. The Saints had dropped their first 13 games in 1980, leading to the dismissal of coach Dick Nolan who was replaced for the final four games by Dick Stanfel. Fans of the Saints began wearing paper bags with the name “Aints.”

The 49ers, led by Bill Walsh, sat at 5-8, coming off a solid win over the New England Patriots, where Joe Montana had his first three-touchdown game. Looking to build off the good feelings of Week 12, the Niners went into the game at Candlestick Park, looking to finish the season strong. The Saints were just looking for a win.

The Saints came out strong, as Archie Manning had a pair of touchdown passes in the first quarter, the first one went to Ike Harris from the 33rd-yard line, the second one was to Henry Childs, who caught a 21-yard touchdown pass. Jack Holmes had a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter, while Freddie Solomon put San Francisco on the board, scoring on a 57-yard punt return. The Saints appeared to put the game out of reach just before halftime as Harris and Manning connected on a 41-yard touchdown pass.

Down 35-7, things looked bleak for the 49ers as no team in NFL history had overcome that large of a deficit to win a game. The previous biggest comeback was 24 points by the Washington Redskins against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1946. The Niners began their comeback modestly as Joe Montana had a one-yard run. Later he connected with Dwight Clark on a 71-yard pass play to make the score 35-21. Montana had his second touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, hooking up with Freddie Solomon from the 14. With all the momentum flipped to San Francisco, Lenvil Elliott scored the game-tying touchdown. The 49ers would win the game 38-38 in overtime on a 36-yard field goal by Ray Wersching.

The 28-point comeback remains the largest regular-season comeback in NFL history as only the Buffalo Bills 32-point rally in the 1992 Wild Card against the Houston Oilers has topped it. The Niners would drop their final two games, finishing 6-10. However, in 1981, they turned things around, winning Super Bowl XVI. The Saints, meanwhile, finally got their first win the following week, beating the New York Jets 21-20. They would be the first NFL team to finish 1-15.