Back In The Big Time
January, 09, 2002
This Sunday sees the return of the San Francisco 49ers to the NFL's annual postseason lottery, the playoffs, after an absence of two seasons.
For a franchise that had grown used to success, this unexpected growth spurt that has seen the young team win twelve games this season is a more than welcome suprise.
Following records of 4-12 and 6-10 the 49ers welcomed back 1998's 1500 yard rusher Garrison Hearst after a two year injury layoff. They also welcomed back 1997 Defensive Player Of The Year Dana Stubblefield and brought in his Washington Redskins team-mate Derek Smith.
They expected their offence to pick up where it left off last season despite the losses of tailback Charlie Garner and legendary receiver Jerry Rice. They hoped for continued improvement from their defence, for two years running the youngest in the NFL.
All of this amounted to an anticipated 8-8 record.
After 18 weeks of football they stand 12-4, second in the NFC West to powerhouse St Louis.
Hearst and third round draft pick Kevan Barlow combined for 1717 rushing yards, 63 catches and 10 touchdowns. Quarterback Jeff Garcia threw 32 TD passes, and Terrell Owens had 93 total receptions and half of Garcia's touchdown passes.
Garcia, Hearst and Owens all went to the Pro Bowl.
On defence Stubblefield and defensive leader Bryant Young solidified the middle of the D allowing Smith to lead the team in tackles. First round draft pick, defensive end Andre Carter developed into a pass rushing threat at right end. Also on defence, cornerback Ahmed Plummer and safety Zack Bronson combined for 14 interceptions.
By improving the athleticism of the defence and drafting smart players the team had its best defensive unit since 1997.
Importantly, this team features few of the players that lost to Green Bay in the Playoffs three years in a row. Instead, the overpaid underachievers have been replaced by a team low on NFL experience, postseason or otherwise, but high in enthusiasm and potential.
That potential also means that inflicting upon Green Bay its first ever home Playoff loss is not unthinkable.
Quarterback Brett Favre is still one of the leagues best, but the talent around him has diminished since those annual Playoff battles with the Steve Young led 49ers.
What he does have is one of leagues top performing running backs in Ahman Green, a solid line featuring the best pair of young tackles this side of DC in Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, and a new goal line threat in Pro Bowl tight end Bubba Franks.
On the other side of the ball a rash of injuries have reduced the effectiveness of the unit, particularly at stopping the run. The loss of Leroy Butler and the inexperience of replacement Bhawoh Jue has also meant less in the way of aggressive freelancing from Darren Sharper.
After getting their offence back on track in New Orleans the 49ers can look to attack the Packers with confidence, but will probably use the running game to chew up the clock as much as possible.
Defensively the team needs Ahmed Plummer to play although the Green Bay receivers look to be an average unit. Antonio Freeman used to feast on Marquez Pope, but has lost a lot of his effectiveness and will find Plummer and Jason Webster to be better covermen than Pope was.
Newly signed defensive end Troy Wilson will struggle against Tauscher who had kept Michael Strahan away from his quarterback until Favre gave Strahan the sack record by literally falling at his feet.
The entire defence will have to play like it did in it's three shutouts this season rather than their performance in Dallas. Had the Niners won that game then this game would be at 3Com Park instead of Lambeau Field.
This game could well match the classic from the 1998 postseason as the teams are evenly matched. Hope for a Niners victory. Wish for it. Pray for it if you do that sort of thing. If they get it then they'll have earned it, and this year will go down as one of the most memorable 49er seasons in nearly a decade.
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