Sacramento Bee

Finally, the 49ers have discovered momentum
January 08, 2003
By Mike Triplett -- Bee Staff Writer

SANTA CLARA -- OK, admit it. The 49ers' game plan stunk.

They waited around all season, never looking like legitimate championship contenders, always counting on the hope that anything can happen in the playoffs.

Then they fell flat on their faces for 2 1/2 quarters in Sunday's playoff opener.

Then "anything" happened. Everything happened.

The 49ers rallied from the second-largest deficit in NFL playoff history, defeating the New York Giants 39-38 to advance to pro football's Elite Eight.

And in the span of about one hour, they did what they failed to do for 17 weeks in the regular season.

They created some momentum.

All of a sudden, who in his right mind would count out the 49ers? Underdogs yes, but underdogs that scored 25 points in the last 17-plus minutes Sunday -- while their next opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, took the week off.

All the talk before the 49ers played the Giants was that San Francisco would lack momentum. They clinched their division title early and rested their starters the final two weeks, while the Giants were busy winning their last four games to clinch a playoff spot.

The theory seemed sound. Until Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens and a resilient 49ers defense finally woke up after 17 weeks and 43 minutes.

"The Giants were the hottest team in the league coming in, supposedly," 49ers center Jerry Newberry said Monday, questioning the laws of physics. "Kerry Collins was as hot as could be coming into that game."

But the momentum theory was hardly disproved. The Giants raced to a 38-14 lead. As the other sizzling New York team did a day earlier, when the Jets drubbed Indianapolis 41-0, the Giants proved momentum can carry over into a playoff game.

It just didn't last.

Now the 49ers will try to carry their newly obtained heat into Tampa Bay, hoping their momentum will last throughout January.

One of these eight remaining teams has to win the Super Bowl. None stands out. And apparently, considering the comebacks by the 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, no team can be counted out.

"(Sunday) was not the way we wanted to play for two and a half quarters. But we were able to see a side of this team that fortunately we don't need to see very often," Garcia said of the 49ers' resilience. "I just want to move forward and hopefully play a better game from start to finish against Tampa."

The 49ers had three chances to enter the playoffs with momentum, but they failed all three times. First was a Monday night game against the NFC's eventual top seed, Philadelphia, in Week 12. The 49ers played their worst game of the season, losing 38-17 and raising serious doubts about their ability to beat a top NFC team.

Three weeks later, they hosted Green Bay and fared better until their final fourth-quarter drive came up short and they lost 20-14.

The third chance -- and this one was a stretch -- came with their dominating start against St. Louis in Week 17, when the 49ers led 17-0 at halftime. But they rested their starters and blew the lead, losing 31-20.

The 49ers entered the playoffs without knowing they could win big against a playoff team. All they had was hope. Turned out, that was enough.

"We had to make a tough decision -- maybe it was an easy decision -- but after we clinched the division (in Week 14), we had to keep in mind that the most important game was that first playoff game," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "We had to keep reminding ourselves of that.

"We had to suffer the consequences in St. Louis, and that was tough. But had we not done that, I don't know how many guys we would have had with enough gas left for (Sunday's comeback).

"Resting those guys didn't give us any momentum. That was the tradeoff."

The question of momentum and confidence and, let's face it, proof that the 49ers could play at a high level against a quality opponent came up throughout this season. Consistently, the 49ers said they were confident in themselves and not worried.

The popular answer was that the regular season was about getting to the playoffs, and once you get there, anything can happen.

"I think (Sunday's win) helps with our confidence. But I think this is a confident football team anyway," said Newberry, he of the never-lacking confidence who firmly proclaimed last week that the 49ers would not only kick the Giants' (butt) but the posterior of whichever team came next.

Newberry didn't repeat his proclamation Monday, but he didn't back down from it either.

"I feel that every week," Newberry said. "I'm confident in this team. I think we're gonna kick whoever's (butt) we play."

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