ATLANTA - Dana Stubblefield is a big man. When he leaps in the air, people notice. Well, Stubblefield jumped for joy on Sunday afternoon. The 49ers won the coin toss at the beginning of overtime and Stubblefield, one of the 49ers captains, could not contain his glee at midfield on the Georgia Dome's turf. Just as Stubblefield anticipated, the 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons in OT. But their 37-31 victory would not be as simple or straightforward as the 49ers figured when they were awarded possession at the beginning of the extra period.
It was far from perfect but that is what made it so satisfying. The 49ers made it so much more difficult because of their problems with something as seemingly routine as the center-quarterback exchange. They made it so much more difficult because their best offensive weapon did not touch the ball in the first 30 minutes of the game. But, in the end, this was one victory for the 49ers to savor as they enter their bye week with a 4-1 record - the team's best start since 1998. And quarterback Jeff Garcia was calling it the most satisfying victory since he joined the organization in '99.
"I think with everything that was involved, having to score in the last few seconds of regulation to tie it, being able to do what we were able to do in overtime, combining everything we had to do as a team, this was probably the most rewarding win I've been a part of since being here," Garcia said.
Wide receiver Terrell Owens, who did not even have a pass thrown his way in the first half, teamed with Garcia to toast the Falcons for nine catches, 183 yards and three touchdowns in the second half and overtime.
"I'm very satisfied as long as we win," Owens said. "I know I didn't catch the ball in the first half, but I just kept with it. I wasn't going to let that shake me. I thought about this could be a game where every guy needs to step up." Owens caught a 17-yard scoring pass from Garcia with just 17 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime. Then, after having spent a large portion of the day setting up veteran Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan, the pair combined on a 52-yard touchdown pass on their second possession of overtime to pull out the triumph.
"We really needed this one," 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said. "This gives us a real chance to meet expectations." Or even exceed them. The 49ers maintained their course toward playoff contention. After throwing for just 75 yards in a lackluster first half, Garcia finished the day with 27 completions in 41 passing attempts for 332 yards and three touchdowns - all to Owens. The Garcia-Owens connection was just one layer in one of the more engaging 49ers victories in recent seasons.
Playing without starting center Jeremy Newberry and backup Ben Lynch, guard Dave Fiore was pressed into service at a position he had not played regularly since his freshman season at Hofstra. Fiore and Garcia put the ball on the ground three times, with one of them resulting in a turnover. And it came when the 49ers had moved into field-goal range on the first possession of overtime. The 49ers had moved to the Atlanta 14-yard line. Coach Steve Mariucci wanted to run one more play before trotting Jose Cortez out for a field goal of no more than 32 yards. This is what Stubblefield had in mind when he began celebrating after the coin toss. What he did not have in mind was a turnover that would send the 49ers' defense back onto the field. But it wouldn't matter. The 49ers stopped the Falcons on three plays.
"This team has no quit in it," 49ers cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. "As a defense, we know that our offense has the capability to go down and score at any point. We know that we are always in the game offensively. The defense will always battle back because we know that our offense will give us a chance." Then it was up to Garcia and Owens to put an end to all the silliness. After setting up the Atlanta secondary for the entire game, the time was right for Owens to take advantage of a veteran cornerback who had designs on jumping a slant route for an interception.
"Pretty much all day we were trying to run slants on their corners," Garcia said. "And that's something that everybody knows how we run the slants and run the slants and eventually it sets up their corners to start breaking on the slants." So Owens lined up wide right against Buchanan, a nine-year professional. He ran a slant and go. Buchanan bit hard on the slant. After Garcia pump-faked, Owens turned up field, running straight for the end zone. Garcia hit him in stride for the 52-yard scoring play. Owens ran untouched into the end zone and then ran to the goal posts, where he slam-dunked the ball over the crossbar.
"That was a fantastic effort to go down there in OT and mess up an opportunity and have the defense respond," Mariucci said. "We got the ball right back and went down there and did it again. It was a fantastic effort. "We are learning to win the close games, and we've had a lot of them. All of our games have been close and we were unable to win them last year. As a young team this year we are finding a way to do it." They're finding a way of doing it, all right.
Safety Lance Schulters sustained a dislocated right shoulder on the first series of the game. His shoulder was popped back into place and he came back to play in the second quarter because "we all play well when we're in there together," he said. His big hit on Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler, who left last week's game with a concussion, appeared to be a factor as Chandler continually missed open targets late in the game. The game had huge significance for running back Garrison Hearst, though he was reluctant to admit it. He returned to the scene of his gruesome broken ankle in January 1999 and gained 78 yards on 12 carries.