A grand opening celebration

<P>SAN FRANCISCO – There was a mob scene at 3Com Park on Sunday afternoon. The kind that develops during a moment of pure, unadulterated joy.

The kind that hasn't been seen a whole lot in these parts for the last couple of seasons. In the middle of it all was a rookie kicker from El Salvador, smiling all the while as he was dog-piled by a sea of San Francisco 49ers teammates. "Everybody was just so happy," Jose Cortez said. "Everybody was trying to jump on top of me and then pick me up. Everybody was just so excited." That excitement resonated on the field and flowed into the stands, where a screaming sellout crowd of 65,989 was on its feet and howling, adding a noisy backdrop for the celebration going on down below.

And why not? For the first time in 23 months, those fans were cheering for a team with a winning record. The Niners opened their 2001 season of high hopes with a classic comeback punctuated by Cortez's 24-yard field goal in overtime that gave San Francisco a 16-13 victory over the stunned Atlanta Falcons.

It was the 49ers' first victory to open a season since 1998, and what a way to get it. They trailed 13-3 entering the fourth quarter and didn't cut into that deficit until less than 12 minutes remained in the game.

The win put the Niners above .500 for the first time since October of 1999, and gave them their fifth victory in seven games dating back to the end of last season. But it sure didn't come easy. "It was a struggle for much of that game," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "But the guys competed all game long. We didn't give up. We fought and made some plays when we had to make some plays. Toward the end of the game, we really started to get some momentum going. We really started to click offensively. "You just have to give a lot of credit to our defense for allowing us to, basically, stay in the game and give us those opportunities toward the end."

No kidding. On an afternoon when a fourth-quarter rally by the offense and Cortez's overtime field goal won the game, it definitely was the defense that saved the day. San Francisco's much-maligned unit, which finished 29th in the NFL last season and looked no better during a rocky preseason, came out and established itself from the start and, to a man, kept the 49ers in the game while the offense sputtered. If not for a 30-yard pass interference call on Jason Webster, when he misjudged the ball and climbed up the back of receiver Tony Martin to give the Falcons a gift first down at the San Francisco 6-yard line, Atlanta never would have sniffed the end zone. That penalty set up Jamal Anderson's one-yard touchdown run three plays later on third down, and that touchdown began to look bigger and bigger as the game progressed. But a resurgent Niners' defense dug in on the few times the Falcons seriously threatened the rest of the day, stopping Atlanta at the San Francisco 10 after a 61-yard drive and forcing the Falcons to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Jay Feely.

The only other time the Falcons mounted a significant drive – this one led by the shifty scrambling of rookie quarterback Michael Vick – the Niners stiffened at their own 6 to limit Atlanta to a 24-yard Feely field goal. "We needed to make plays," said defensive tackle Bryant Young, who had two big sacks of Atlanta starting quarterback Chris Chandler – one of which pushed the Falcons back from the San Francisco 3 and forced them to settle for their first field goal. "We needed that to make up for the bad things we did in the preseason. Hopefully, we did that today."

A look at the statistics sheet sure says so. The Niners, with tackle Dana Stubblefield joining Young to clog the middle and their linebackers playing surprisingly well after a horrible preseason, limited the Falcons to just 241 yards – a far cry from the kind of numbers they were yielding at this time last year. Chandler passed for only 121 yards – Vick was 0-for-4 passing in his two series of action – and the Niners bottled the powerful Anderson throughout the contest. Anderson needed 26 carries to get his 86 yards rushing, a 3.3 average. He had only 30 yards on 10 carries after halftime.

"We have to keep our offense on the field so they can score some points," Stubblefield said. But for all too long Sunday, that approach didn't work. The Niners were forced to punt five times and gave the ball up on downs once during the first seven times they had the ball. The only exception was a 12-play drive that stalled at the Atlanta 22, where the Niners settled for Cortez's first NFL field goal, a 39-yarder that made it 10-3. It was 13-3 until Garcia started collaborating with J.J. Stokes – the lost receiver of last year – who pulled in three receptions during a nine-play, 87-yard drive that ended with Stokes' 16-yard touchdown reception and made the score 13-10 with 11:29 to play in regulation.

"We knew we had what it takes to punch it in," Stokes said. "We just had to work things out and keep after it. We never stopped doing that." The defense held twice more the rest of the game, forcing the Falcons to punt on each of their final possessions. After the first punt, Garcia threw an interception after his pass was tipped at the line. Atlanta's second punt left the 49ers at their own 14 with 4:04 left to play. This time, Garcia smartly led the Niners down field, hitting Terrell Owens for a 40-yard gain that took San Francisco to the Atlanta 17 at the two-minute warning. A seven-yard scramble by Garcia on third down left the Niners with a first down at the Atlanta 3.

But they couldn't get into the end zone as Garcia overthrew Owens on second down and Tai Streets on third down. No matter. Cortez's 20-yard field goal sent the game into overtime, where Atlanta called heads at the midfield coin toss. The coin came down tails, and three plays after the kickoff, Streets was off to the races. He pulled in a short pass from Garcia, cut back across the field and raced down the right sideline for a 52-yard gain that set up Cortez's final field goal. Not to mention one heck of a celebration.


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