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Back for the playoffs
01/03/03


Ladies and gentlemen, Trevor's Corner has made its triumphant return!

Many huzzahs from readership, much banging on tables.

It's been a long time away, but I'm back now and better than ever!

Several readers faint, fights break out, riot ensues.

...

Man, I've got one nutty pack of fans, eh?

All ego massaging aside, yes, I've been away, some personal crap has been getting in the way of my musings about our team, but I'm back now and I'll be coming to you all throughout the playoffs.

So let's recap what happened since I went away. After getting nipped by the Chargers, the 49ers got stomped by the Eagles, then they trounced the Seahawks, only to get whipped by the Packers, hand a beating to the Cardinals and get quarked (I ran out of adjectives, alright?) by the Rams.

Yes, it's been a roller coaster ride for the 49ers this season, and now that they've lost 4 of their last 6 games, their playoff fate is sealed. They've finished 4th in the NFC playoff race, and their prize? The honor of facing the surging New York Giants in the opening round of the playoffs at San Francisco Stadium at Candlestick Point. Yes, the Niners will host a playoff game, despite the fact that they have a worse record than last year, when they opened on the road. Don't ask me.

But even though one goal has been accomplished and the 49ers are playoff bound, they still face a long road to get to the fabled "next level" of success. The first step of this is to win a playoff game, something Steve Mariucci hasn't done since 1998. The final step is to win the Super Bowl.

But I got news for you, Niners fans and faithful: it ain't happening. At least not this year.

In this, the Parity Age of the NFL, champions make smart moves in an offseason where they have cap room, build continuity throughout the season, get hot late in the season, and ride that streak to a championship. The 49ers completed the first half of that equation. The additions of Ron Stone, Sean Moran, Jim Flanigan, and Tony Parrish have worked out perfectly. Stone just got elected to the Pro Bowl, Moran and Flanigan have provided great play off the bench for the defensive line, and Parrish was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his two interception performance against the Seahawks. He should have been a Pro Bowler, and may yet wind up in Hawaii, either as an alternate or a "need" player.

Problem is, the 49ers peaked about midseason, when they beat the Raiders and a host of other teams by playing dominant, ball control football. Injuries piled up, as did incosistent play and just some plain, old-fashioned bad luck, and the 49ers pretty much wrote themselves out of the race for homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.

And having to go on the road for two games, one of which would almost certainly be in either Green Bay or Philadelphia, pretty much nails the coffin shut for the Niners. The depth isn't there, nor is the continuity or the luck to sustain a long playoff drive.

"But Trevor," you might say, "didn't the Patriots do the same damn thing last year and make the Super Bowl?"

Yes Virginia, there is a one-hit world champion in the NFL. But the difference is that last year's Patriots didn't lose a game after Week 6 agains the Rams. And they were a disciplined cohesive team with depth out the wazoo and a head coach who is among the best schemers in the NFL. The 49ers have none of those things. Team discipline, at least in execution, is low, depth has been riddled by injury, and while Mooch can write a good offensive gameplan, they somehow consistently seem to come up short in big games.

Not that I'm saying they shouldn't even bother trying. Mariucci needs to win in the opening round to insure that he keeps his job. And the fan in me is hoping that somehow everything comes together and a championship run is had. But given the criteria that I mentioned before, looking around the NFL, my Super Bowl pick is Titans vs. Eagles for all the marbles.

But fret not, 49ers fans. Though this offseason will be long and full of questions, I will do a preview of next season after the 49ers' season is over and that alone should give you plenty of hope.

LAST WEEK'S GAME

These are not the Rams of old, but the results were pretty much more of the same. After three quarters of masterful football, Jamie Martin and the Rams tore up the 49ers' scout team defense and scored 28 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to pull out a victory in a meaningless game, 31-20.

Oh well.

I saw some things in the first half of the game that I really liked, on both sides of the ball. The 49ers attacked on offense, they sustained the longest scoring drive of the NFL season, and they showed good balance. Tai Streets and Tim Rattay had solid games. And though they were facing an unknown rookie in Scott Convington, the Niners defense was agressive and succesful when their starters were on the field. If all this was was a playoff tuneup, then there are some things to be excited about.

Here's hoping.

NEXT WEEK'S GAME

As you probably already know, the New York Giants enter Sunday's game at Candlestick--I mean, 3Com--I mean, San Francsisco Stadium at 3Stick Point--ah, screw it. Anyways, the Giants come to San Francisco having won four straight games, including a thriller against the Philadelphia Eagles (who, you'll recall, stomped the 49ers in Week 12) in Week 17 to clinch their playoff berth.

Meanwhile, your 49ers stumble into the playoffs having lost 4 of 6 and looking more and more like pretenders to the throne all the time. They havent won a convincing game since Week 9 or so, and in the last two months pretty much all their flaws have been exposed.

But I must stress this to you, Niners fans: no NFL team is without flaws. This is being cited by all the "experts" as being the most even-keeled playoff field in years, maybe ever. (Which is just a nice way of saying that every team sucks, but hey.) Even the mighty Eagles and Raiders have glaring flaws: the Eagles face an unsure QB situation, whether Donovan McNabb starts or not, and the Raiders are weak in the secondary.

And maybe the 49ers' greatest advantage in this entire playoffs is that they're entering under the radar. Having dropped 4 of 6 means most writers and experts are overlooking the team. And whether that's justified or not, if the 49ers have remedied their immediate problems, they could turn the lack of attention the their advantage and sneak up on people.

As far as the Giants game itself goes, there are advantages the 49ers can exploit there. Injuries this year have robbed the Giants of almost all their receiving threats, save Jeremy Shockey and Amani Toomer. Now you'll recall that this is the same Amani Toomer that burned Jason Webster to the tune of nine receptions for 134 yards, but this time Toomer doesn't have Ike Hilliard playing opposite him to take the pressure off. Ahmed Plummer needs to become Toomer's shadow. Since Plummer has been hobbled in recent weeks, the Niners need to give him some safety help at times, but it can be done. Starting opposite Toomer is rookie Daryl Jones, he of the eight catch season. Veteran speedster Ron Dixon will also see significant playtime. Julian Peterson has shown the ability to shut down the NFL's best tight ends, but this will be his biggest challenge. He must stop Shockey from making any big plays.

Tiki Barber is the other offensive key for the Giants. Their most consistent weapon, he is the only man on the team who has shown an ability to beat other teams, and the 49ers must hold him in check. They have to stack the line to keep Barber from breaking the game open and force Kerry Collins to beat them. Coverage must be solid, especially when the Giants spread the field to react to San Francisco stacking the line. Disciplined defensive play will stymie the Giants' offense.

Offensively for the 49ers, the key to the game could lie in the hands of right tackle Scott Gragg, who draws the less-than-favorable assignment of shutting down NFL sack king Michael Strahan. Gragg won the first matchup easily, using some tight end help to hold Strahan to four solo tackles and nary a sniff of Jeff Garcia all game. How Round 2 plays out will be a big part of the game.

The 49ers need to establish their running game early. Garrison Hearst can pile up yardage against this defense, but he's the kind of back that needs to have a lot of touches to get into a rhythm. And once the Giants crowd the line to stop Hearst, the Niners need to put the ball over the top to a well-rested Terrell Owens and let him take on Jason Sehorn and Will Allen for touchdowns.

In the end, this game is a double-edged sword. Win, and suddenly you're the most feared team in the playoffs. Lose, and you're just a laughingstock, overrated and perpetually looking at next year. This is a game San Francisco can win, but all excuses are gone now.

As I mentioned before, here's hoping.


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  GIANTS 24, 49ERS 21 (OT)
01/03/03

It was a bitterly fought wild card playoff contest, but in the end it all came down to a coin flip as the New York Giants edged out the San Francisco 49ers today in overtime, 24-21.

The game started out in a flurry, as a 57 yard kickoff return bythe 49ers' Paul Smith on the game's opening play gave the 49ers the ball at the Giants' 39 yard line. Jeff Garcia then did the rest, directing a five play, 39 yard drive that was highlighted by a fingertip sideline catch by Terrell Owens on the Giants' 3 yard line on 3rd down and punctuated by a Garrison Hearst 2 yard TD run two plays later to put the Niners up 7-0 not a minute into the first quarter.

The Giants struck back though. Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey accounted for all but one touch on the Giants' 9 play, 87 yard scoring drive which ended with a Barber 15 yard TD reception.

The teams traded punts for a few drives, and then the 49ers got the ball back at their own 42 yard line with 0:57 left in the first half. Three passes -- a 24 yard strike across the middle to Tai Streets, a 12 yard WR screen to Owens, and a 22 yard slant to Owens -- were all the 49ers needed to put their second touchdown on the board as time expired in the second quarter. The 49ers went into the locker room at the half leading 14-0.

The Giants came out looking sluggish the second half. Kerry Collins threw two badly incomplete passes on first and second down of New York's first offensive series and faced third-and-10 on their own 23 yard line. Collins then dropped back and lofted a nine yard fade to Daryl Jones. Jones made a great catch, plucking the ball out from above Jason Webster's head, but was taken down a yard short of the first down. But Webster was flagged for a five yard facemasking penalty and the Giants' drive stayed alive.

On the very next play, Collins dropped back, pump-faked once, and fired a rainbow out to the streaking Ron Dixon. Dixon outmuscled 49ers' rookie corner Mike Rumph for the ball, stiffarmed him to the ground, and sprinted the ball into the endzone for the tying score.

The 49ers took the ensuing kickoff and started their next drive on their own 36. They used an excellent mix of run and pass plays to drive to the Giants' 17, but the drive stalled as Garcia's third down pass just brushed the fingertips of Tai Streets. Jeff Chandler's field goal sailed wide right, and the score remained tied 14-14.

An excellent defensive stand ended the third quarter. The Giants had driven deep into 49ers' territory, but still faced 3rd and 6 on the 49ers' 13 yard line. Collins dropped back to pass and was hit as he threw by Andre Carter. The ball was wobbly and fell right into the arms of Pro Bowler Julian Peterson, who got some blocks and returned the ball all the way to the Giants' 49 yard line before being taken down by Tiki Barber.

The Giants' defense held, though. A Garrison Hearst draw play on 3rd and 2 was stuffed by New York defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, and the 49ers punted.

Delvin Joyce took the punt, however, and nearly broke it. Standing between him and the goal line was 49ers' linebacker Saleem Rasheed, and Rasheed emphatically slammed him to the turf at the Niners' 44 yard line.

The Giants made the most of their excellent field position though. Tiki Barber carried six times on the drive, Toomer and Shockey each caught two passes, and Ron Dayne punched the ball in from 2 yards out to cap a 44 yard scoring drive to put the Giants up 21-14.

But with 1:44 left and all three of his timeouts remaining, Jeff Garcia took the field at his own 17 yard line. He opened the drive with seven straight completions. Terrell Owens, Tai Streets, Eric Johnson, and Kevan Barlow all were on the receiving ends of short outside balls, all were taken out of bounds, and the Niners found themselves at the Giants' 32 yard line with :38 showing and still all their timeouts still left.

Two incompletions, however, left San Francisco staring at 3rd and 10, still at the 32. On 3rd down, Garcia rolled out right and looked down the field. All options were covered, so he made a break for it. Primed to meet him at the line of scrimmage, though, was Michael Barrow. Garcia stopped and pump-faked, and Barrow was faked to his knees. Garcia sprinted past his grounded form, juked safety Shaun Williams, and fell forward for an 11-yard run and a first down. He called timeout and the 49ers were in business.

Two more short passes brought two more timeouts and with :14 on the clock, the 49ers had 1st and goal on the Giants' 2. The 49ers lined up in a goal line stance, and Garcia play-actioned and hit Terrell Owens in the right flat for two yards and the tying touchdown. Owens, who had lined up at tight end for the play, ran right past Brandon Short, who bit on the playfake and was wide open for the TD.

Chandler punched in the extra point, the Giants kneeled out regulation, and the teams lined up for the coin flip. The Giants called tails, tails came up, and out came the Niners to kick it off.

A decent return by Joyce set the Giants up on their 32. On OT's first play, Collins dropped back, pumpfaked twice, and heaved it as far as he could to Dixon, who was singled up on Rumph. The ball was incomplete, but Rumph was flagged for a 57 yard pass interference penalty.

On the next play, Giants kicker Matt Bryant lined up, took a deep breath, and punched in the winning 30 yard field goal to send the 49ers home for the rest of the year.

Barber won player of the game honors, rushing 17 times for 86 yards and catching five balls for 62 yards and a TD. Ron Dixon also logged 97 receiving yards for the Giants, most of those yards coming on his 73-yard TD catch-and-run.

For the 49ers, Garcia went 24-32 for 311 yards and 2 TDs to Owens. Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow combined for 124 rushing yards, and Niners linebacker Julian Peterson logged 12 tackles on the day.