Blowing it against the Browns

The disturbed scowls and disenchanted gazes revealed more than just utter frustration Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Point. "It's beyond frustration," Terrell Owens said with a shrug and frown that pretty much said it all for the reeling 49ers, who let another out-played opponent stick around way too long. This time, they paid for it dearly with a 13-12 loss to the Cleveland Browns, who appeared just as stunned as anyone that they were able to escape San Francisco with an unexpected victory.

The Niners never got it right all afternoon on offense, but it didn't seem to matter with the way their defense was playing. But that all changed in the fourth quarter after the Browns had gone nowhere against the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense during the first three periods.

The Browns drove 75 yards for a touchdown on their first possession of the final quarter to get on the scoreboard. Then, improbably, they assembled a 17-play, 91-yard touchdown drive in the final six minutes to send the shocked 49ers shaking their heads into the locker room with the same 1-2 record as the Browns.

After going nowhere most of the afternoon, Cleveland gained 138 of its 251 yards of total offense in the final quarter, finally wearing down the 49ers' tenacious defense on an unusually hot and humid San Francisco Sunday.

"Obviously, we were a little tired," Niners linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "But that's no excuse. We just had to make plays, and we didn't make them."

Not when it counted, at least. The Browns made it past the San Francisco 45-yard line just once in the first three quarters and never came close to sniffing the end zone. But on the final drive, when not many felt Cleveland could drive the length of the field against a defense that had dominated it most of the day, the Browns converted five-of-five third down opportunities.

The last of those was an 11-yard scoring pass from Kelly Holcomb to Andre Davis on a third-and-10 play with 29 seconds remaining that doomed the Niners. Holcomb and Davis also combined for a 2-yard scoring pass 10 minutes earlier that completed a 75-yard drive.

"That's Cleveland Browns football, just wait until the last minute and 35 seconds of the game," said Browns coach Butch Davis. "These guys have a lot of character, they have a lot of guts, they're going to fight and they are going to play."

That would have been a fine description of San Francisco's defense, too, even after the Browns' late rally. As Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said, the defense played well enough for San Francisco to win. Instead, the 49ers had a 36-game winning streak snapped in games in which they held their opponent to 17 points or less.

That had the 49ers trying really, really hard not to point fingers afterwards at their offense.

"I'm running wide open, but Jeff can't get me the ball because he's on the run," said Owens, who had eight receptions for 90 yards but had just one catch in the final period as the Niners produced just 10 yards on their final three offensive drives.

"We're never going to get the offense that coach Erickson wanted if (Garcia) can't get any protection to throw the ball downfield," Owens continued. "That's not to call anybody out, but I'm accountable for a lot of things, and everybody else should be accountable, too. There were a lot of situations where I was wide open."

The Niners, who got just six points out of their three trips inside the red zone, stalled throughout the day on offense, with Garcia rarely having time to set up in the pocket. It didn't seem like such a big deal at the time, but the Niners best chance at a touchdown came on their first drive when they moved crisply down the field and reached the Cleveland 1 after a 68-yard drive.

But fullback Fred Beasley was stopped short of the goal line on both third and fourth down – an official's review held up the latter call after Niners coach Dennis Erickson challenged a ruling that could have gone either way – and San Francisco never again would get closer than 18 yards away from the Cleveland end zone.

Still, with new kicker Owen Pochman making field goals of 38, 44, 45 and 36 yards in his San Francisco debut, the Niners had a 12-0 lead early in the fourth quarter and – with the way their defense was playing – that looked to be plenty good enough.

It wasn't, giving the 49ers a galling home loss against a struggling opponent that stings even worse than their missed opportunity last week in St. Louis.

"It's a long season, but tough games like this, you have to win," Garcia said. "We have been in two tough games the past two weekends and came up on the shorter end of it. We need to find a way offensively to turn things around on how we are playing as a group, and keep our heads up. We will get over this. We will move forward, rejuvenate ourselves, and press on. But right now, it's not easy to swallow."


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