San Francisco Examiner

Time for a giant step
January 04, 2003
Of The Examiner Staff

SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers insist that their best is yet to come -- even though the regular season is behind them and the postseason is here.

Coach Steve Mariucci will remind anyone willing to listen that he's still waiting for his team to play "the complete game," as if the Niners can suddenly hit the switch and transform themselves into the Monsters of the Midway.

The 49ers are what they are -- a 10-6 team that has played well in spurts en route to securing its first NFC West Division title since '97. But if there is ever a time for the Niners to ascend to the level of play they maintain they're capable of, there would be no better occasion than Sunday, when they host the wild card New York Giants (10-6) at Candlestick Park in the opening round of the playoffs.

"Now is as good a time as any to," Mariucci said when asked if his team could crank it up for the postseason. "I'd like to think our best football is in front of us. The best six teams are still standing and you have to be on top of your game in order to win these things."

The 49ers face the challenge of confronting the NFC's hottest team. The Giants qualified for one of two wild-card berths by winning their last four games -- and seven of nine.

The Giants are multi-layered offensively. They have a 1,000-yard rusher (Tiki Barber), a 4,000-yard passer (Kerry Collins) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Amani Toomer). Throw in the tempestuous yet gifted tight end (Jeremy Shockey) and you have an opponent armed with enough offensive firepower to pull off an upset at Candlestick Park.

"They've really been playing well and they're a very confident team," 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. "They should come in here feeling confident and feeling momentum." But, he added, "Momentum can change in a heartbeat."

Right about now, momentum is guiding these teams down different paths. While the Giants finished strong, the Niners struggled. San Francisco finished 3-4 and ended the regular season by giving up 28 fourth-quarter points in a loss to St. Louis Monday night.

Although the 49ers had pulled their starters out of the game in the first half -- and Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens remained at home to rest his inflamed heel and groin -- a great number of players were unhappy with the way the season ended.

Winning Sunday would purge that bitter memory and set up a rematch against the Eagles in Philadelphia next week. It could also potentially secure Mariucci's future in San Francisco, which presently appears tenuous.

"We had some guys that were out," defensive tackle Bryant Young said of Monday's loss. "We didn't come out and finish the season like we wanted to. We are aware of that and we have to get ourselves in a better position to win.

"Especially now."

This first-round playoff game is a rematch of the season-opener on Sept. 5 at New York. The teams were deadlocked at 13 late in the fourth quarter, but the game turned when Owens broke free and caught a 33-yard pass to set up Jose Cortez's game-winning field goal with six seconds remaining.

"Forget the past," Giants coach Jim Fassel said earlier this week. "It doesn't matter. It's a single-elimination tournament. Let's tee it up and get the two teams after it."

The 49ers will be without two defensive starters who played a big part in the win at New York: linebacker Jamie Winborn, who had 16 tackles and a sack in the opener, and right cornerback Jason Webster.

Winborn -- who was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week after that performance -- has missed the past 14 weeks with a knee injury and was placed on injured reserve Thursday. Webster sprained his ankle in St. Louis and isn't expected to recover in time to play.

If Webster is unable to play, struggling rookie Mike Rumph will start at right corner. The 49ers will have safety Zack Bronson back in the lineup for the first time since he broke his foot Oct. 14 in Seattle. Bronson's return could prove pivotal for a defense that has given up an average of 21.3 points a game -- the most of any of the six NFC teams that qualified for the playoffs.

"We just need to win this game to get to the next game," cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. "The playoffs are do or die and that's how we're approaching it. Right now, it's a new season. Everything in the past is done and now it's about getting to the next step.

"And that's the Super Bowl."

Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.