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Jeff Garcia has officially attained the status of football god.
Say what you will about his goofy mechanics, his jumpiness in the pocket, his drive-you-crazy checkdowns, and that little lisp in his voice that has his, uh, priorities in question. His performance against the Giants on Sunday, January the fifth, two thousand and three established him as one of the greatest clutch players in the NFL today and, as mentioned, a football god.
It doesn't matter if the 49ers lose Sunday's game against the Bucs 41-0. It doesn't matter how many mistakes he makes, it doesnt matter how much stuff he does that a football purist doesn't like, you will not hear me make a single complaint about Garcia from now until the day he retires.
To walk onto the field midway through the 3rd quarter, your team down 24 points and being completely dominated, is a pretty humiliating experience. Garcia could have just mailed it in. Gotten lazy, gotten stupid, and put his team down by even more and giving the morons on sports talk radio more material to bash him with. Instead, he buckled down, took the 49ers on his back, and went to work.
Three touchdowns -- two by his arm, one by his feet -- one crazy broken play, and an untold amount of truly ballsy football later, Garcia and his mates found themselves victorious, celebrating a victory the circumstances of which had only been fathomed once previously in the annals on NFL history. Only once before had a team come back from as many as four scores in a playoff game to win. And with apologies to Frank Reich and his Buffalo charges, none had played in a game as bizarre, as intense, as grab-your-head-and-scream unbelievable as this. And it's all because of a skinny kid from the CFL. Thank you, Canada.
LAST WEEK'S GAME
Enough's been written about this game that I don't really need to go into full detail. Instead, I will point out some things that I noticed.
- Jeremy Shockey and Julian Peterson put on one of the most entertaining one-on-one battles I've seen in football in quite some time. Exhilarating as it was to watch Peterson shut down Tony Gonzalez earlier this season, it was awesome to see two players so evenly matched as far as skills go as Peterson and Shockey. Each man made their share of plays and mistakes, and in the end, each showed why they're Pro Bowlers. This will be a matchup I'll look forward to seeing for years to come.
- Least commented-upon line of the game: Jeremy Shockey: 7 catches, 68 yards. Eric Johnson: 8 catches, 78 yards.
- The award for Most Underrated "Angry Coach" Face goes to Jim Fassel.
- For all the talking Michael Strahan did this game, his numbers were horribly pedestrian. At least former feudmate Tiki Barber carries his weight.
- Two catches. For 14 yards. That's all the production the 49ers got from "wide receiver" J.J. Stokes, a man who has spent his pro career apparently trying to look like anything but. When the 49ers release him this summer, his agent will be the loneliest man in the NFL.
- Is it just me, or is the offense much more lively and dangerous-looking when Kevan Barlow lines up in the backfield? Defenses seem to respect his threat more than that of fading star Garrison Hearst. Hearst's my man and offical Favorite Player of Trevor's Corner, but the sandman cometh and time appears to be leaving one of the NFL's all-time great stories behind.
NEXT WEEK'S GAME
If the 49ers manage to win this week's game against the Bucs, I will consider this season to be a rousing success.
Let's be brutally honest, shall we? The 2002-2003 season saw Steve Mariucci, Jeff Garcia, and Terrell Owens take a team full of mismatched offensive spare parts and overmatched defensive spare parts and win a playoff game. A second playoff game would make this motley crew one of the four best teams in the league. I think that's a pretty damn good job, especially when one considers that the 49ers weren't actually meant to be good until next year. Some serious overacheiveing by the Niners (which was probably necessary to save Mariucci's job) has made them a playoff team two years running, and that's with $28 mill plus in dead cap money. I say bravo to Mooch, Garcia, T.O., and everyone else involved. Masterful.
This, more than any other game this year, will prove the 49ers' true mettle. While they've struggled against winning teams this year -- the team was 2-4 in the regular season and beat the Giants last week -- the they have demonstrated at times this season the kind of play that can win championships. It's all a matter of harnessing that great play and putting it out there every week. I've said it before and I'll say it again. If San Francisco plays with the kind of poise, execution, and guts it displayed in the final 20 minutes of the Giants game, they can beat anyone.
The Bucs come into this game having finished with the NFL's no. 1 defense. Linebacker Derrick Brooks was just named Defensive Player of the Year. Things are looking up in Tampa. The 49ers come into this game clinging to the hope that their flawed team can put together three more victories and live up to the standards of 49ers teams past.
To be honest, there would be no shame in losing this game, especially if the final score is close. The 49ers are still an up-and-coming team, with flaws that have been exposed by a long regular season and nearly disastrous one postseason game. The Bucs have looked at times like the class of the NFC. The Niners could keep this game close, lose it late, and not feel horribly about themselves.
However, there's a reason they play the games. And because of that, the Niners have a chance.
And that chance balances almost solely on their ability to run the ball. The Bucs can't run the ball. Period. Tampa RB Michael Pittman, signed to be a poor man's Corey Dillon, hasn't done much of anything, and FB/RB Mike Alstott continues to prove why he is the NFL's most overrated player. If the 49ers can use their strong, solid offensive line to carve out running lanes for Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow, and turn in the kind of play that allows teams to extend drives and dominate up front, the Niners would be very close to a victory right there.
Bucs defensive tackle Anthony "Booger(?)" McFarland is out for the season. Starting in his place is Chatric "I have the lowest ever rating in Madden" Darby. If DT Warren Sapp is fed a constant stream of double teams, the 49ers can run their HBs directly behind Jeremy Newberry, Ron Stone, and Fred Beasley and gain yards on the ground, one of the best tactics to beat the Bucs. It's been shown several times this year that teams that use big, physical running games do best against the Bucs. The 49ers have some of the best power running plays in the NFL and the personnel to run them. There's no reason to think that the Niners can't win the battle on the ground.
If San Francisco gains over 150 yards on the ground and Terrell Owens gets over 100 receiving yards, the Niners are in business. Brad Johnson is the consumnate "play with a lead" QB. He's a statue in the pocket, but his arm is both strong and accurate and he makes decent decisions. However, he doesn't play well from behind. He rushes his throws and gets in trouble with defenses that suddenly are teeing off on him. If the Niners get a two-score lead early, watch out. The Bucs could be in bigger trouble than they ever thought possible.
In all, this is a game the 49ers can win. But the ability to run the ball, mixed with judicious use of the red-hot no huddle offense, plus a solid defensive effort, will all be key to victory.
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49ERS 20, BUCS 17|
Another thrilling playoff game today saw the San Francisco 49ers, coming off an incredible wild card victory over the New York Giants, see their latest game end on a field goal attempt -- with much different results.
The 49ers won the opening kickoff and chose to receive. A 33 yard kickoff return by Vinny Sutherland put San Francisco in business on their own 39 yard line to start the game. The Niners opened up in a four-wideout set, with Garrison Hearst in the backfield. The Bucs' defense, lined up in the dime to match up with the wideouts, was taken completely off-guard by the delayed handoff to Hearst, who burst over right guard and stiffarmed linebacker Al Singleton to the ground en route to a 17 yard gain into Bucs territory and a first down. The next play, the 49ers lined up in an offset I-formation. 49ers QB Jeff Garcia play-faked to Hearst, set up, let fly over the middle, and hit Terrell Owens across the middle on a deep slant. Owens broke Brian Kelly's tackle and sprinted downfield before he was brought down by Tampa safety John Lynch. Owens' 42 yard catch-and-run gave the 49ers first-and-goal on the Buccaneers two yard line. Two plays later, Jeff Garcia ran a naked bootleg into the end zone, and just like that, the 49ers were up 7-0.
Aaron Stecker gave the Bucs starting field position at their own 19 and that's where Tampa Bay QB Brad Johnson set up and went to work. Two tosses to Michael Pittman went nowhere -- they gained him a total of -2 yards. So facing 3rd and 12 on the 17, the Bucs went to a five-wide receiver set. Johnson dropped back, stepped up in the pocket to bounce off a hit from Andre Carter, and threw to Ken Dilger. The pass was intercepted mid-flight by Julian Peterson at the 22, and he returned it all the way, leaping over a diving arm tackle by Mike Alstott and en route to the 49ers' first defensive score since early in the season, making the game 14-0 with 1:00 remainging in the first quarter.
Another short Stecker kickoff return set the Buccaneers up at their own 18 to start their second offensive possession down 14-0. But that's where Johnson went to work. Mike Alstott and Keenan McCardell were featured as the Bucs moved 70 yards in 8 plays. Alstott touched the ball four times, McCardell three as Tampa's drive stalled at the 49ers' 12 yard line. A Martin Grammatica FG made the score 14-3 about midway through the second quarter.
The teams traded a couple punts, and the 49ers wound up with the ball with two timeouts remaining after a failed challenge attempt and 2:02 remaining in the half on their own 27 yard line. Garcia led another charge, as the 49ers put the ball in Owens' hands time and again. Owens caught balls on short slants, medium outs, and wide receiver screens, not to mention one reverse. And with with 0:34 left on the clock in the first half, Garcia stepped back to pass, got hit as he threw, and watched as the wobbly pass fell into the arms of Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks. The Bucs kneeled out the half and went into the locker room at halftime still down 11.
After being stifled on his two kickoff returns in the first half, Aaron Stecker beat the 49ers' special teams coverage. He shook off three tacklers on the second half's opening kickoff and got superb blocking en route to a 97-yard TD return. Grammatica's extra point sailed true and the Bucs pulled to within 14-10.
Tampa's defense finally showed up in the third quarter, holding the Niners to three consecutive three-and-outs. And finally the 49ers' defense broke. Brad Johnson hit Keyshawn Johnson on four consecutive pass plays, including the final play of a 74 yard drive, a 14 yard TD pass, as the Bucs took their first lead of the game, 17-10.
With 1:34 left in the game, Garcia and the offense stepped back out on the field, and brought with them an old friend: the no-huddle offense. A flurry of short passes served the 49ers well on a 6 play, 69 yard scoring drive to tie the game at 17. However, the offense scored too quickly, and the Bucs got the ball back with 0:49 left on the clock and two timeouts remaining.
Brad Johnson moved Tampa's offense quickly, hitting on pass plays of 12, 24, and 7 yards to put the Bucs in decent field position to play for a winning field goal attempt. But as Brad Johnson dropped back on his second down pass play and fired a ball out to Joe Jurevicius toward the sidelines, his pass was picked off by 49ers rookie corner Mike Rumph. Rumph, aided by blockers, returned the ball back to the Bucs' 17 yard line and got out of bounds with 0:03 left on the clock.
Steve Mariucci sent his field goal unit out on the field to win the game. Jeff Chandler took a deep breath and yelled "hike!". The snap was true, the hold was solid, the kick was good, and the 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship game.
Garcia earned player of the game honors, despite passing for only 174 yards, one touchdown, and one INT. When it came down it, he had the most clutch performance of the day. Kevan Barlow led the 49ers in rushing with 77 yards on 11 carries. Owens logged 7 receptions for 94 yards and a TD. Defensively, Peterson recorded 15 tackles, a sack, and an INT. Tony Parrish logged 6 tackles and a sack.
For the Bucs, Brad Johnson passed for 224 yards, a TD, and 2 costly INTs. Pittman led the Bucs in rushing with 32 yards. Keyshawn Johnson put up 111 yards receiving and a TD. Defensively, Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks logged 8 tackles and an INT, but was ultimately rewarded with a loss. The 49ers travel to Philadelphia next week to face the Eagles.