Dominant 49ers blast Bucs

Nothing comes easy for the 49ers. Not even when they're making it look easy. But try as they might to live on the edge once again Sunday, the Niners simply were too good this time to be undone by their own mistakes. And that meant a resounding 24-7 victory over defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, a result that gives new meaning to San Francisco's wavering season.

When the 49ers were good Sunday, they were very good – and at times even great. But a series of maddening mistakes allowed the Buccaneers to hang around within striking distance until it became very apparent the Niners weren't about to let this one slip away like other heart-wrenching losses this season.

Despite those mistakes – two turnovers, three missed field goals by Owen Pochman, two potential touchdown passes dropped by Terrell Owens and two major misplays in the secondary by safety Zack Bronson – the Niners still rolled the defending NFL champs by 17 points.

All in all, that's saying something.

Quite a bit, actually.

"You can't do any better than that," said Niners defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, who contributed to a magnificent defensive effort with four tackles, a sack and a deflected pass. "We took it up a notch to where we need to be. Hopefully, this is a springboard for things to come."

The Niners were almost stunning in their dominance on both sides of the ball, pushing around the NFL's reigning No. 1 defense for 458 yards of total offense. San Francisco gouged the middle of Tampa Bay's proud and fearsome defense with steady doses of Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow as the Niners piled up 212 yards rushing.

Hearst had 117 yards rushing on 20 carries – his first 100-yard game of the season – and Barlow contributed 75 on 15 as the Niners took it to the Bucs early and often.

The ground game made such a statement for the Niners that coach Dennis Erickson was led into his post-game news conference by five sweaty starting offensive linemen – tackles Kwame Harris and Scott Gragg, guards Ron Stone and Kyle Kosier and center Jeremy Newberry.

"We weren't supposed to be able to run in this football game," Erickson exclaimed as the linemen took the podium instead of the coach. "They dominated the line of scrimmage."

And this time, it was from start to finish.

"Our goal was to hit them in the mouth," Newberry said. "And when they got back up, hit them in the mouth again. We just went right at them. Eventually, we wore them down."

The Niners kept the Bucs down, even though Tampa Bay was given several openings to get back up. The Bucs took advantage of the first opportunity, striking for a 75-yard touchdown pass from Brad Johnson to Keenan McCardell that tied the score at 7-7 late in the first quarter.

Bronson made a bad read on that pass, leaping in front too soon as the ball went over his outstretched arm and into the hands of McCardell, who took it the distance. Another poor play on the ball by Bronson allowed McCardell to reel in a 40-yard reception from Johnson in the fourth quarter.

Those plays made for some anxious moments for those who have seen the 49ers lose three games by a total of five points this season, including last week's 20-19 defeat at Seattle, mainly because of breakdowns in key sequences that allowed outplayed opponents to stick around and win at the end.

Missed field goals of 31, 39 and 50 yards by Pochman and two drops in the end zone by Owens – the Niners failed to score a point on either of those drives – added to the drama because of the way San Francisco had failed to put away opponents previously this season. This was, after all, the same Tampa Bay team that blasted the Niners 31-6 in the NFC playoff semifinals last year on the way to the Super Bowl.

But there never was any reason to worry. Not with the way the 49ers' defense was playing.

"When you get right down to it … defensively we played unbelievable today," Erickson said of his unit that forced four turnovers. "I can't say enough good things about that group. (Tampa Bay) got two plays, basically. Other than that I thought our defense totally dominated the game."

San Francisco's defense made sure Tampa Bay never would recover from the 21-7 halftime lead the Niners built on two big plays by Owens and Tai Streets.

On the first play of the second quarter, Streets took a hitch pass near the line of scrimmage, juked a defender and then vaulted into the end zone to complete a 14-yard scoring play that gave the lead back to San Francisco.

Seven minutes later, quarterback Jeff Garcia hit Owens on a short five-yard route and Owens did the rest – breaking tackles, finding the sideline, then cutting back and out-running defenders to complete a spectacular 75-yard touchdown play. Despite missing out on chances to add to his totals, Owens still had his best day of the season with six catches for 152 yards.

"You've got to give credit to Owens," Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber said. "He's one of the best receivers in the league and he showed it again today. And Garcia played like an All-Pro. If he was having troubles earlier this season, it didn't show today."

A lot of the 49ers' troubles from earlier this season failed to show Sunday – even when it seemed like they were on the verge of appearing.

Instead, the Niners turned a corner of sorts, improving to 3-4 with a tremendous effort against an elite team that – at least for the time being – saves their season and sends them surging in the right direction.

"We made the next step," said Niners linebacker Julian Peterson, who contributed an interception and team-high seven tackles to the effort. "Now we just have to keep it going every week."


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