49ers get straight to work on Giants
January 01, 2003
Brian Murphy, Chronicle Staff Writer
More than anything else on Tuesday, the 49ers craved normalcy. A bizarre fourth-quarter meltdown Monday night in St. Louis, a bumpy flight home, a 4 a.m. arrival at team headquarters -- it all needed to be shoved aside for the high-pressure, but happily familiar, preparations and machinations that define a playoff week, and a playoff game.
Coach Steve Mariucci met the media in full playoff mode -- slightly unshaven and clad in a 49ers sweatshirt and shorts, a stark contrast to his usually scrubbed and shined self for early-week news gatherings. The message was clear: Appearances can wait. The 49ers are working now, trying to figure out how to stop a New York Giants team that presents many daunting problems.
New York comes in for Sunday's game at Candlestick as the NFC's hottest playoff team, having won four consecutive games. No other NFC playoff team can say that, and that streak includes a 10-7 overtime win over the NFC's top seed, Philadelphia -- the same Eagles team that manhandled the 49ers just six weeks ago on another Monday night national TV game.
No matter, says the home team. The 49ers take heart in a Sept. 5 win over New York at the Meadowlands, a 16-13 grinder, and in their mantra of the past few weeks, when questions about their January worthiness surround them like so many gnats.
"Really, it's a new season," said Mariucci, who did not watch the game film from St. Louis. "The best teams in the league have a new season. You have to look at it like that. The best six teams (in the NFC) fight it out, and we find out who the best is."
There is some evidence the Giants are contenders for that title. They blew out an AFC playoff team, Indianapolis, two weeks ago, then beat the Eagles in a game that could have been more lopsided. The Giants controlled the ball on a tough Philadelphia defense, and gained 461 yards -- stymied only by three lost fumbles, an interception in the end zone and two touchdowns called back by penalties. The Giants will be more rested, having played Saturday, and boast skill players -- quarterback Kerry Collins, running back Tiki Barber, receiver Amani Toomer and sensational rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey -- who are producing at a high level.
"They're very confident," Mariucci said. "At least, it appears that way."
The coach is also acutely aware of the NFL's level landscape these days, where momentum seems a week-to-week proposition, and a team sometimes can be only as good as its opponent's last missed field-goal try.
Eagles kicker David Akers missed a chip-shot field-goal attempt late in the fourth quarter that likely would have beaten New York.
"The answer is yes, they do (look hot)," Mariucci said. "However, they could have certainly lost that Eagle game with a kick, and all of a sudden you'd say, 'Well, how hot are they?' "
The 49ers seem to have not gotten truly hot themselves. They won a weak NFC West, and went 2-4 against teams with a winning record. (The Giants, incidentally, also went 2-4 against teams with a winning record). The 49ers did not win more than three consecutive games, and their offense took a new hue this year, settling for shorter passes and more ball control than at almost any point in modern 49ers history, starting with the 1981 season.
This year's team produced the lowest yards per pass attempt in 23 years, and finished 17th in the league in yards per completion -- scarlet letters for this organization's offense-first fan base. Mariucci points to last year's 12 wins and this year's 10 wins as evidence that things are progressing, stats be damned.
"I care more about wins," Mariucci said. "We've won a lot of games playing football that way: favor the run game, plus higher percentage passes, plus the efficiency . . . move the sticks, make first downs, especially on third downs, don't turn the ball over, help our defense out, win time of possession -- all those things are very high statistically, which makes your yards per attempt and yards per game a little bit lower.
"To me, that's an OK trade-off, as long as you're winning. And we won more than 29 (actually 23) teams in the league, doing it that way."
BRIEFLY: Safety Zack Bronson, out since Oct. 14 with a broken foot, will practice this week and likely start, Mariucci said. Cornerback Jason Webster, who sprained his ankle Monday night, is questionable, and the team said it will know more about Webster's availability at the end of the week. Also questionable: rookie linebacker Saleem Rasheed (thigh).
Receiver Terrell Owens, tackle Derrick Deese and guard Ron Stone, who sat out in St. Louis, will play. However, linebacker Jamie Winborn (knee), who had a big game against New York in the season opener but has been out since September, is doubtful.
Linebacker Jeff Ulbrich (ankle), receiver Cedrick Wilson (ankle) and defensive end Sean Moran (Achilles tendon) are probable, but will limit practice.
Mariucci, on a shouting match between defensive coordinator Jim Mora and special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven on Monday night: "That thing was over with immediately. . . . During the game, on the sidelines, you've got to realize, the sideline is very emotional. It's not the Vienna Boys Choir, OK?"
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