The Oakland Tribune

49ers try to shake recent lethargy
January 05, 2003
After late-season falter, S.F. limps into playoffs

By Roger Phillips STAFF WRITER

Virtually from the moment early in the season when the St. Louis Rams vanished from the ranks of the NFL elite, the San Francisco 49ers knew they would be in the playoffs.

There was never much mystery, and a week ago today when the NFL's wild playoff picture finally sorted itself out, the 49ers were little more than intrigued onlookers.

Perhaps this is why they seldom seemed very inspired this season, and why they limped to the finish of the regular season with four losses in their final seven games and a mundane 10-6 record.

Perhaps this is why, as they prepared for this afternoon's wild-card playoff game against the New York Giants at Candlestick Park, they constantly were being asked whether the postseason would be a time for them to prove something they were unable to prove in the past four months.

"This game is important for us to keep working next week," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "We don't have to prove anything to anybody. We've got to continue and move on. A lot of things happened in the season that we wish we could take back. But I'm not going to say we took a step back."

The 49ers -- who will play at Tampa Bay next weekend if they win today -- won two fewer games this season than last.

But unlike last year -- when they were a 12-4 wild-card team that went on the road for the playoffs and lost in Green Bay -- this year they are the NFC West champions and will play host to a playoff game for the first time since 1998.

"Although our number of wins wasn't quite the same as last year, we did win the division, and we didn't do that last year," coach Steve Mariucci said. "From that standpoint, it's a step up. Another step up, obviously, would be to go further in the playoffs. That's what we are working for this week."

Unlike the 49ers, the Giants (10-6) didn't earn their wild-card berth until the final play of their regular-season finale, when Matt Bryant booted a 39-yard overtime field goal for a 10-7 victory over Philadelphia.

The Giants' 11th-hour playoff invite and the four straight wins that saved their season obscured the fact that this is a team that not long ago was 6-6, with one of those setbacks to the first-year Houston Texans.

"We certainly knew that we were in a tough spot," Giants quarterback Kerry Collins said. "I think you always just keep after it, and a lot of times it ends up not being how you start out but how you finish. We finished the season well, and we got the help that we needed."

These teams met in the season opener four months ago today, a 16-13 victory by the 49ers on a 36-yard field goal by then-kicker Jose Cortez with six seconds remaining.

It seems a lifetime ago, and it has taken the passing of a season for the issues in today's game to come into focus.

For the 49ers, it's a good-news, bad-news occasion:

GOOD NEWS: The 49ers' secure position in the standings allowed them to rest receiver Terrell Owens for the final two games of the regular season. Owens, bothered for weeks by a groin strain, will be healthier today than he has been in a couple of months.

BAD NEWS: The Giants' secondary was successful with a physical approach against Owens back in September. Owens caught only four passes for 41 yards, but one was a 33-yarder on the winning drive. Still, the Giants believe they have the blueprint for keeping Owens in check.

"My attitude with guys like that is that you aren't going to shut them out from getting their catches," Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "The only thing you can do is try to minimize the huge plays that they make."

Mariucci: "Of course we would like to have him more productive when it's all said and done. ... Therein lies the battle because the Giants are saying they are going to keep the ball out of his hands. That's their plan, and that's our plan, so let's play."

GOOD NEWS: After missing nearly three months with a broken left foot, free safety Zack Bronson will return to the 49ers' lineup.

BAD NEWS: Cornerback Jason Webster has a sprained left ankle, and the 49ers won't know if he can play until this morning. If Webster cannot play, rookie Mike Rumph will start in his place.

"He's been improving each week and is becoming more and more comfortable," Webster said about Rumph. "I don't know if you can tell, but I can tell by watching him."

Rumph added, "I'm just looking forward to getting out there and doing my role. That's the best I can do, I'm going to go out there and do what I practiced."

GOOD NEWS: The 49ers were plus-10 in giveaway/takeaway margin this season. The Giants were minus-2. The 49ers intercepted three Collins passes in the teams' first meeting.

BAD NEWS: Collins threw nine touchdown passes in the Giants' final four games and was intercepted only once. The Giants have a multifaceted offense that relies on the talents of running back Tiki Barber, receiver Amani Toomer and rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey.

"They block well and they catch well and the receivers run great routes and Collins makes great decisions with the ball and he spreads it around," 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora said.

GOOD NEWS: In the opener, the 49ers contained Barber (who was playing on a sore hamstring) and Shockey (who was making his NFL debut). The Giants are downplaying Barber's sore back this week.

BAD NEWS: Even if the 49ers repeat their successes against Barber and Shockey, they still must fear Toomer. In September, he burned the Niners with nine catches for 134 yards.

"In every game I've seen him play, he has always made some plays," 49ers cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. "It is going to be a challenge to all of us to go up against him. It will be important in the secondary to keep an eye on him."

GOOD NEWS: The first time the 49ers played the Giants, right guard Ron Stone was playing for the first time after missing a month with an elbow injury, and center Jeremy Newberry was snapping left-handed because of an injury to his right hand. This time, the 49ers' offensive line is healthy.

BAD NEWS: The Giants' offensive line, inexperienced at the start of the year, has a season's worth of seasoning.

In addition to all of these factors, there is the projected match-up between Shockey and 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson, there were Newberry's bold predictions this week about an impending butt-kicking of the Giants, and there is the speculation that Mariucci needs a win to solidify his job security.

The 49ers simply would like to turn in the type of 60-minute performance that so often eluded them during the regular season. If they can do it, they'll be willing to take their chances.

"We have been aware of it all year that we haven't played our best game yet," Bronson said. "Now is the time."

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