George Seifert went 98-30 in his eight years as 49ers coach. He won 10 more games in the postseason, including two Super Bowls.

But there's a hole in Seifert's heart that won't heal. He was the coach when the 49ers fumbled away the January 1991 NFC Championship game and their ticket to a third straight Super Bowl. The 15-13 loss to the New York Giants, as devastating a loss as any in team history, ranks No. 7 in our countdown of the 49ers' most unforgettable moments at Candlestick Park.

"It haunts me to this day," Seifert said recently. "I don't know that ownership has ever forgiven me for losing that game."

Running back Roger Craig #33 of the San Francisco 49ers looks for room to run during the 1990 NFC Championship game against the New York Giants at
Running back Roger Craig #33 of the San Francisco 49ers looks for room to run during the 1990 NFC Championship game against the New York Giants at Candlestick Park on January 20, 1991 in San Francisco, California. The Giants won 15-13. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

"It drained us of everything," said Carmen Policy, the former team president. "We lost the game. We lost our quarterback. We knew if we got to the Super Bowl, we were going to win it. The gloom was unbelievable. I don't recall ever seeing the team or the organization as down as we all were that day."

To this day, no team has won three straight Super Bowls. The 49ers were three minutes away from having the opportunity to make that history, to set themselves apart from all other NFL dynasties, to relegate the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers to an argument about second-best.

The 49ers had survived the loss of quarterback Joe Montana, injured with 10 minutes to play. They led 13-12, with Steve Young at quarterback and running out the clock. They were in Giants territory, at the 40, with 2:42 showing on the clock, when running back Roger Craig fumbled. The Giants recovered and scraped together enough yardage to set up Matt Bahr's 42-yard field goal as time expired.

It was a crushing moment. Candlestick fell into a funereal hush as the ball barely eked over the crossbar. Suddenly, shockingly, the three-peat opportunity was gone, and in agonizing fashion to boot.

Seifert, now 73 and retired to the life of an avid outdoorsman, admitted that he still replays many details of that loss in his head. More than anything, he maintained that the Craig fumble was only one element to the 49ers' epic failure.

"When you have something like that happen, there are a number of things that go into it," he said. "It's not just one player. There were missed blocks and missed tackles. Joe had John Taylor wide open down the field on the play he got hit. There were things we could have done differently. I know I wish I would have run a different play (on the Craig fumble). We shouldn't have even been in that position. But as I look back on it, I can only beat myself up so much."

If it wasn't the end of an era, it was the end of an aura. That game was the last as 49ers for cornerstone stars Craig and Ronnie Lott, both of whom were left unprotected in Plan B free agency and signed by the Los Angeles Raiders. Montana would play only one more game with the 49ers -- the 1992 season-finale that amounted to a ceremonial goodbye.

"I wonder sometimes if we had won that (championship) game and won the Super Bowl, would the moves relative to Plan B have been made? Would it have been different?" said Policy, who then indicated that the fates of both Lott and Craig probably would have been altered.

Anyone associated with the 1990 team, a team that went 14-2 and might have been better than the two previous Super Bowl-winning editions, still carries the pain.

"All we had to do was run out the clock and we fumbled it away," said center Jesse Sapolu. "When people ask me about my four (Super Bowl) rings, I say 'four' with a disappointed face."

Craig, typically loquacious then and now, went a long time without talking about the play. In recent years, he has been more forthcoming, albeit only slightly.

"It's just one play," he told our Daniel Brown in a 2011 story. "That's part of the game. It wasn't meant to be. Joe (Montana) got hurt. The defense couldn't stop them. ... There's never one play where you win or lose. You win and lose as a team."

Even after 22 years, Policy isn't sure anyone is over it, particularly Craig.

"You can't get rid of it," Policy said. "Like Dwight (Clark) and Joe have The Catch, Roger has The Fumble. It's just a terrible thing, just terrible. The team understands, so he's comfortable when he's with his teammates. However, in terms of public persona, I think it still bothers him."

It doesn't bother him any more than the loss bothers Seifert. Asked what he told the team in the anguished locker room afterward, the former coach could barely remember. He recalled saying something to the effect that it's better to put yourself in position for such an achievement than not at all, but it was hollow oratory.

"In situations like that, all you can do is try and be a little philosophical, unless you want to break down in front of a lot of people, which you tend to save for your personal moment," Seifert said.

Before entering the Hall of Fame this past summer, former Giants coach Bill Parcells called that NFC title victory over the 49ers the most satisfying of his career. His team went on to win Super Bowl XXV over Buffalo.

The notion eats at Seifert. He acknowledges that many losses haunt him, going all the way back to the 1957 San Francisco city championship when he was a player. But the Giants loss obliterates them all.

"It's a bitter pill," he said. "Bill Parcells goes into the Hall of Fame, and I'm going hunting."

Follow Carl Steward on Twitter at twitter.com/stewardsfolly.

Candlestick Moments


In honor of the 49ers' final season at Candlestick Park, we count down the team's Most Unforgettable Moments there. Stories will run until Dec. 23, the last regular-season game at the place the 49ers have called home since 1971. The 10 Most Unforgettable Moments -- among them a few that 49ers fans can't forget, no matter how hard they try -- were voted on by our sports staff. You can vote at mercurynews.com/49ers. The fans' top 10 will be revealed before the final game.


SUPER BOWL THREE-PEAT MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

1968 Green Bay Packers: Finished 6-7-1, did not make playoffs.
1974 Miami Dolphins: Lost to Oakland 28-26 in AFC divisional round.
1976 Pittsburgh Steelers: Lost to Oakland 24-7 in AFC Championship.
1980 Pittsburgh Steelers: Finished 9-7, did not make playoffs.
1990 San Francisco 49ers: Lost to N.Y. Giants 15-13 in NFC Championship.
1994 Dallas Cowboys: Lost to San Francisco 38-28 in NFC Championship.
1999 Denver Broncos: Finished 6-10, did not make playoffs.
2005 New England Patriots: Lost 27-13 to Denver in AFC divisional round.