Let the hype begin for 49ers/Steelers clash

The national perception of the 49ers has been wavering recently, but there's no question they'll get to show the football world what they're really all about when they take the Monday night stage against the Pittsburgh Steelers. "The 49ers and Steelers, these are two global franchises," ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said Wednesday. "Both these teams should be playing this time of year in a big game."

For the 49ers, it doesn't get much bigger than their upcoming game against the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Or, to put it in better perspective, the Niners haven't been involved in such a big, late-season, nationally-televised, high-stakes game against an imposing opponent since the team was at the tail end of its two-decade dynasty in the late 1990s.

The Niners were regulars in the Monday night spotlight game back then, appearing each season as many times as the NFL limit would allow. They played in the maximum three Monday night games in 10 of 11 seasons from 1989-1999, but after showing up three times again during their NFC West championship season of 2002, they appeared on Monday night only seven times in the next eight years.

Two of those appearances came last year, when the 49ers were preseason NFC favorites and were expected to have finally arrived as contenders again under coach Mike Singletary.

Instead, they plummeted to a 6-10 finish as one of the NFL's biggest disappointments of the 2010 season. That put them on the schedule for just one Monday night game this year, but many involved with the Monday Night Football production are eager to see the Niners become showcase regulars again.

Play-by-play commentator Mike Tirico, part of a three-person booth that broadcasts Monday games on ESPN that includes analysts Gruden and Ron Jaworski, said the Monday crew is part of a large legion of NFL followers who have been anxious to see the 49ers become relevant again.

"I think that's why there's such an excitement of the resurgence in the Bay Area of the 49ers, because that really seems like a distant memory to those Super Bowl championships won by (Bill) Walsh and (Joe) Montana and (George) Seifert and (Steve) Young and that group of 49ers," Tirico said. "It seems so long ago. It is truly a generation ago."

Tirico went on: "I've got an 11-year-old son, and I say the 49ers, they were it for a long time," he said. "And he'll kind of look and go, ‘Really? When was that?' So for a new generation of fans, it's a great opportunity to remind ourselves of one of the great legacies in the NFL. To see the 49ers relevant and very much in the mix here is great for all of us.

"And you put those two global franchises on the field, 10 wins, late in the season, (and) meaningful for both teams because they both have work to do within their respective conferences. For the 49ers, to play a big-time opponent on a big stage, what great preparation for all the other stuff that goes on around a game and hype leading up to a big game because they're going to see it in a couple of weeks in the playoffs as well."

The 49ers may need to win their final three games to hold onto the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and the bye week that goes with it. As Tirico pointed out, the next two Monday night games, "really could determine who gets the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and I think that's huge for a younger, less-playoff-experienced San Francisco team. It would be great to have as many (playoff) games at Candlestick as possible."

The Niners are battling the New Orleans Saints, also 10-3, for the No. 2 seed in the NFC behind undefeated defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay. New Orleans hosts defending NFC South champion Atlanta in the season's final Monday night game on Dec. 26.

While nobody today is labeling this game as a possible Super Bowl preview, there is no question it's an attractive inter-conference showdown between two of the league's best teams who, indeed, could both make it to the big game in early February.

"We do have two great franchises that represent a great tradition of the National Football League as far as winning championships," Jaworski said. "With our Monday night crew, one of the things as we traveled around the league, I have collected an array of photographs of the trophy cases of all the teams around the league, and when you talk about those teams that have multiple Vince Lombardi Trophies, you're talking about the 49ers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Those are a couple pictures I have prominently displayed in my office."

The opening video presentation for this Monday's game will feature Joe Montana, who had a shoot with the Monday Night crew in San Francisco on Tuesday. It's part of the venerable show's intention this week of highlighting the 49ers tradition and the resurgence of the franchise.

"It's going to be a chilling experience, I think, for a lot of 49ers and certainly Pittsburgh Steeler fans, 10-3 going head to head against each other," Gruden said. "It's going to be great."

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