Niners NFL road warriors again in 2003

After a one-year respite, the 49ers will return to their role as one of the NFL's most-traveled road warriors in 2003. With road games this season against the NFC North and AFC North, it will seem just like the old days for the Niners, who annually crisscrossed the continent in previous seasons to play divisional road games against former NFC West opponents New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina and St. Louis.

Now the 49ers have relatively short divisional road excurisions to Seattle and Arizona to go along with their two-time-zone-change trip to St. Louis. That allowed the Niners to drastically reduce their annual road mileage last year in the first season of NFL realignment.

The Niners only had one trip to the East Coast (to play the New York Giants) and their only other distant trips were to New Orleans and St. Louis. That left the Niners traveling only 18,092 round-trip miles for their eight road games in 2002 - far below the distance they had traveled the previous two decades.

This year, with away games including trips to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Minnesota and Green Bay, the Niners will log 32,490 miles during the regular season, much more comparable with the distance they traveled each season for road games before NFL realignment.

The Niners open at home against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 7 before traveling for a key NFC West matchup with St. Louis a week later that will feature a matchup of the division champions from the previous two seasons.

The Niners then host Cleveland before entering a three-week stretch in which they'll face teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2002 - Minnesota (away), Detroit (home) and Seattle (away).

The Niners then encounter a showcase game against defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay at home on Oct. 19. That will be a rematch of San Francisco's season-ending divisional playoff loss to the Buccaneers last year and is one of five games the Niners will play against 2002 playoff teams.

After divisional games with Arizona (away) and St. Louis (home), the 49ers will enjoy a Nov. 9 bye week before entering perhaps the most difficult stretch of their schedule.

After their bye, the Niners will host the defending AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 17 - the only time this season the Niners will be featured on Monday Night Football. San Francisco also will play a nationally-televised game in prime time against at Seattle on Oct. 12.

After the Pittsburgh game, the Niners enter a stetch of five weeks in which they'll play just one game at home. Their Dec. 7 home game against Arizona is preceded by road visits to Green Bay and Baltimore and followed by away games at Cincinnati and Philadelphia. The Niners end the regular season with a Saturday game at home against Seattle.



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