<P>Once a regular featured attraction on one of the longest-running popular shows in television history, the 49ers find themselves in an unfamiliar role Monday night when they play the New York Jets in the Meadowlands: Returning from hiatus. </P>

The Niners did not appear on Monday Night Football last season - for the first time in 18 years. San Francisco had been one of the event's star attractions over the past two decades, appearing on the program the maximum-allowed three times in every season from 1989-1999 except 1992, when the Niners appeared twice. They also appeared at least twice every year from 1984-1988. But after the team's 4-12 debacle of 1999, the ABC powers that be decided to bump the Niners from their prime-time schedule in 2000. Completely. But now they're back, ready to show the world what they've got on a Monday night for the first time since a 34-29 loss at Atlanta on Jan. 3, 2000.

"It's great to play on Monday night because it's center stage and everybody's watching and you're the only game on, prestigious, all that," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "I know everyone's excited to do it because most of this team has not played on Monday night, which is a little strange. We've got 28 first- and second-year players that don't know what a Monday night game is."

So, is this an indication the Niners truly are considered a contender again after last year's 6-10 finish? "Well, ABC seems to think so," Mariucci said. "It's a token one game back. We'd like it to be three games. We had been accustomed to being on three times a year. This is all in line with the progression of working back to being a playoff-caliber team, a highly-visible team, a productive team, an exciting team where there is more household names on our roster. I'm glad they think we're worthy of a Monday night game."

Several Niners are excited about the opportunity, particularly after the team was snubbed last year. "It's the main event," linebacker Julian Peterson said. "It's Monday night. You can't beat it. Everybody knows that Monday Night Football song. That's the anthem of the National Football League." Said quarterback Jeff Garcia, "It gives us a chance to showcase this team to the country. Because not many people get to see us play based on what we've done the past two years. It's an opportunity for this team to be in a prime spot and to show what we're capable of doing and what type of team we're going to be in the future. It will be an awesome night."

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