And now the pain begins, the aching reality for the 49ers that a Super Bowl will be taking place but they will not be taking part. A cycle is broken. A dream fades.

Neither with a bang nor whimper did their world end. Instead it was with a pounding sense of inevitability.The law of averages did them in as surely as the New York Giants, who on a Sunday of transition not only stole the 49ers' mystique but also stole their conference championship.

The Niners went down like the champions they had been, watching Matt Bahr's fifth field goal of the day fly into history with time having run out - and isn't that last phrase sadly appropriate for San Francisco?

The Giants were 15-13 winners, and the term "three-peat" had become as bitter as ashes on the tongue, a fanciful idea that could not be validated, indeed most likely never will be validated.

And yet even in their grief the 49ers did not forget that pro football is merely a boys' game played by men. And the memory that will persist from this one is of San Francisco's intensely competitive Matt Millen crossing the field at game's ending and hugging Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler.

Sporting excellence is ephemeral. You may grasp greatness, but you never own it. Kingdoms tumble, winners stumble. We're warned in our youth you can't win them all. And sooner or later we know all too well.

The past 10 years belonged to the 49ers. They had the magic and men and, most of all they had Joe Montana. But the last 10 minutes of Sunday's NFC Championship Game belonged to the Giants.

Fate is a lonely hunter. With 9 minutes 41 seconds remaining, Montana was battered on an inhumanely powerful tackle by the Giants' Leonard Marshall. Joe would lie there seemingly forever. When he finally got up and wobbled to the sidelines, the 49ers' conviction left with him.

Everything would unravel after that. It as if the gods were getting even for the past three years.

Chicanery. The Giants would fake a punt and run 30 yards to keep alive a drive. Confutation. Roger Craig, the 49ers' best runner the past seven years, would fumble as San Francisco tried to run out the clock.

Perhaps it is all for the best. Montana, we would learn, incurred not only a bruised breastbone but a broken baby finger on his right hand, his throwing hand. His season was over even if the 49ers' had continued.

The Giants deserved this game, the way the Redskins deserved last weekend's divisional game. Maybe the way the Vikings deserved the final game of the regular season or the Saints deserved the opening game, way back in September.

This was the 49ers' year of living dangerously, of trying to survive without a running game and with only a mediocre defensive backfield. And for the longest time they managed to do just that. But they couldn't do it against the Giants.

Against the Giants they kept getting called for pass interference. Against the Giants they could only rush for 11 yards in the second half. Against the Giants the laughter would end in tears.

There was a funeral atmosphere in the 49ers' post-game locker room, where players and media walked by each other silently not knowing quite how to act or what to say. After all, it had been 36 months since either group was in this situation.

The quiet was almost eerie. The only sound was that of water running in the showers, until, at last, soft questions filled the air, questions that truly never could be answered.

Someone approached Craig and offered one word of consolation. "Sorry," said a bystander. "I'm sorry, too," insisted Craig. "I don't know what happened. I thought I had the ball secure."

The 49er fans, the second largest Candlestick Park football crowd ever, 65,750, thought their team had the game secure. But it didn't. Not at all.

And for the first time in three years there will be a Super Bowl or World Series without a Bay Area franchise. It's been a golden era, with the 49ers, A's and San Francisco Giants. Now it's someone else's turn to revel.

Twice the New York Giants came to Candlestick in the past six weeks. Not once did they score a touchdown. But they're going to Super Bowl XXV next Sunday, where they'll lose to the Buffalo Bills.

Of course, we also thought they would lose to the San Francisco 49ers.

"Going into this game," said Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, "everyone had every reason for us to lose - the point spread, the two-time defending champion, the win over us last time, the home field for them. It was an impossible situation. But we won."