Niners can't finish again

The 49ers finally came alive Sunday night, becoming the kind of team they always envisioned during a stirring comeback against the Seattle Seahawks. But then a couple of costly, inexplicable errors got in the way just as they were about to put their season back on track. A missed PAT attempt and a Garrison Hearst fumble - things you just don't see very often - ended up killing the 49ers at the end of a 20-19 defeat because of the way Seattle had pushed them around during the first two quarters.

As a somber San Francisco defensive end Andre Carter said afterward, "Everything kind of adds up when you look at four quarters of a football game."

And these four quarters of a nationally-televised game at Seahawks Stadium most definitely didn't add up to a San Francisco victory.

But they could have. And maybe should have. Some inspired play by the Niners - something that hasn't been seen often enough by San Francisco this season - got them in position to come all the way back from a 17-point second-quarter deficit.

But Bill LaFleur botched a hold on a PAT attempt that could have tied the score late in the third quarter, forcing Owen Pochman to drive his kick wide right. Pochman gave San Francisco its first lead at 19-17 on a 33-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter, but the Seahawks - mustering a sustained drive when it counted after being shut down in the second half - went ahead on a 37-yard field goal of their own from rookie Josh Brown with 3:04 remaining.

An opportunistic 49ers defense, which had played so well to get the 49ers back in the game, actually had stiffened again when it counted to force the Seattle field goal and give San Francisco plenty of time to set up a fantastic finish.

But it wasn't to be. One play after the two-minute warning, after the Niners had driven to a first down at their own 43-yard line, Hearst was stripped of the ball by Seattle linebacker Chad Brown as the tailback charged through an inside hole. The ball bounced right into the lap of Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin and - after the Seahawks converted on third-and-9 three plays later - that was it for the Niners making a complete turnaround of the game - and their season.

"It was just that freak accident right at the end that stopped us from winning," Niners guard Ron Stone said.

It also put San Francisco's season on the brink. The loss dropped the Niners to 2-4 and 2 ½ games behind the first-place Seahawks in the NFC West. The defending division champion Niners are 0-2 in the NFC West and gasping for air with defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay coming to town next week.

"This one was tough - tough on players and coaches and everyone's that involved with the organization," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said.

The Niners got punched in the nose at the beginning of this one as the Seahawks came out firing both on offense and defense to take a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. Seattle dominated even more so than the scoreboard indicated, compiling a 220-60 advantage in total yardage before San Francisco assembled a late drive at the end of the second quarter that resulted in Pochman's 42-yard field goal with three seconds remaining before halftime.

But then the Niners picked themselves off the mat and started punching back. Playing without left tackle Derrick Deese and left guard Eric Heitmann, both of whom went out with ankle injuries early in the game, San Francisco was a different team in the second half.

"We just came together as a unit," Stone said. "We came back as a unit and started taking over the game."

San Francisco's defense rose to the challenge, limiting Seattle to three net yards of offense on its first four drives of the second half. One of those drives ended with a Tony Parrish interception that led to the touchdown on which the Niners could have drawn even.

But then came the PAT miss - the first of two killer mistakes that would turn this into just another what-if and could-have-been game for the Niners. San Francisco now has lost two games in the final minutes by one point and another by three points in overtime.

But this one hurts more than the others.

"We should be down right now," Stone said. "But we're not out. The season's not over yet. We know what our record should be. We just have to stay positive, move on and come back."

The Niners almost accomplished all those things Sunday night. Now it's going to be a whole lot tougher to do the rest of the way.


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