49ers Lion-hearted

There were huge sighs of relief all around Sunday afternoon on the 49ers sideline. It was another slightly dysfunctional performance by the home team, but San Francisco finally showed some heart and found a way to finish a tight game for the first time this season. The Niners snapped their three-game losing streak with a 24-17 win over Steve Mariucci and the Detroit Lions, and while there was an unsatisfying taste left by the victory, nobody was about to throw it back.

"Getting wins in this league isn't the easiest thing in the world," said Niners coach Dennis Erickson, who has been witnessing that reality every week for the past month. "The bottom line with me is that ‘W,' and that ‘W' is pretty important, irregardless."

Nothing is coming easy for the 49ers these days. It promised to be different Sunday, when they raced out of the gate for 17 quick points in the game's first 18 minutes.

Quarterback Jeff Garcia and receiver Terrell Owens, who ended a tumultuous week of antagonism by settling their differences with a chat during the pre-game breakfast, had hooked up for an early touchdown connection – their first in three games. The defense had forced a turnover and a couple of Detroit punts. The 49ers were rolling again, and all appeared well.

But like several times already this season, a San Francisco team that came out with emotion and fire in the early going suddenly found itself grasping for either in the second half, then found itself holding on at the end.

But this time, a rejuvenated defense grasped firmly when it counted, turning away Detroit on its final two possessions after the Lions had come within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

"We made plays when we needed to make plays in the fourth quarter," Niners defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. "That showed the development and maturity of this defense."

The Niners needed that growth from their defenders, because they received another uneven performance from an offense that experienced problems that are becoming common – shaky protection for quarterback Jeff Garcia, errant throws by the three-time Pro Bowler, drive-killing penalties and overall inconsistency.

After scoring two touchdowns and a field goal on their first three possessions to build a 17-0 lead minutes into the second quarter, the Niners gained a grand total of 41 yards on their next six drives. That allowed Detroit to bounce right back into the game, and the Lions trailed just 17-10 at halftime.

"We came back from 17 down on the road against a good team," Mariucci said after his return to San Francisco, where he guided the Niners the past six seasons before being fired in January. "That doesn't happen very often."

Don't tell the Niners. The last time they played at 3Com Park, they let a 12-0 lead disappear in the fourth quarter against the lowly Cleveland Browns. There wasn't a repeat performance of that ugly effort because the Niners got some big plays from a defense that was tough in the early going but went soft in the middle quarters.

The play of the game was turned in by Tony Parrish, the Niners' thinking-man safety, who intercepted a Joey Harrington pass late in the third quarter and returned it 49 yards before stepping out of bounds along the sidelines.

It was just the kind of momentum-swaying thing the Niners needed at the time, because Detroit was positioning itself to take control of the game – and the San Francisco sideline was going silent – even though the Lions still trailed by a touchdown.

But on a fourth-and-2 play at the San Francisco 35, the Lions tried to fool the Niners with a slant-and-go pass. Parrish didn't bit. Rookie receiver Charles Rogers slipped past cornerback Jimmy Williams, but it was Parrish – and not Rogers – who made the play and snagged Harrington's pass.

"Once they lined up, I knew what was coming," Parrish said after his first interception of the season. He led the Niners with seven last year. "I knew I had to be there for my corner."

The Niners scored three plays later after Garcia threw 26 yards to Brandon Lloyd – the first catch of the rookie's NFL career – then trotted into the end zone himself on the next play on a well-executed naked bootleg.

That appeared to seal the deal at 24-10 entering the fourth quarter, but the Lions immediately drove 60 yards for a touchdown that made it a one-possession game again. The Niners then went backwards on their next drive, and when the nasty winds at 3Com Park pushed Owen Pochman's 37-yard field goal attempt wide on San Francisco's next drive, it made for some anxious moments for the 49ers and their restless fans, particularly considering their crunch-time performance in recent losses to St. Louis and Cleveland.

Not to worry. The defense stepped up. And the Niners stepped out of the NFC West basement, with a chance to get right back in the thick of playoff contention when they travel next week to play at division-leading Seattle, which was hammered Sunday by Green Bay.

"We definitely still have work to do," said Niners linebacker Julian Peterson, who had another strong outing. "We didn't make all the plays that we need to make. But we've got it going in the right direction again. Now it's all about us taking it up another notch."

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