Nightmare in Baltimore

The road horror show continues. And it just keeps getting worse. The 49ers fell apart Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, and this time it was from start to finish. As their season crumbles away, so does the foundation of the franchise as San Francisco matched its most lopsided loss in the past 17 seasons with a cover-the-eyes-ugly 44-6 defeat.

How ugly? In dropping to 0-6 away from home this season, first-year Niners coach Dennis Erickson rarely has seen worse.

"It was one of the worst games I've been around in a long time in my coaching career," said Erickson, who has been a head coach the past 22 years.

The view was just as bad on the field.

"It was like a bad nightmare coming true out there," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said.

A worst-game, nightmarish performance. That about covers it.

There usually was some kind of explanation for San Francisco's failures earlier this year, but this effort rattled the 49ers to their core. Not only did they fall to 5-7 and see any faint playoff hopes certainly extinguished by their eighth consecutive road loss. But they also left M&T Bank Stadium with some serious questions about who and what they are and where they're going.

Who's their quarterback?

Garcia struggled through the worst game of his career, compiling a passer rating of 18.8 and throwing four killer interceptions, three of which Baltimore turned into touchdowns. Tim Rattay finally came in for mop-up duty early in the fourth quarter after Garcia had thrown picks on his final two passes of a forgettable afternoon, which no doubt will lead to another week of quarterback controversy regarding who should be San Francisco's starter.

Where is their offense?

With Garcia misfiring in his first game in more than a month, the Niners could get nothing going against Baltimore's aggressive defense, struggling to keep the chains moving from beginning to end. The Niners had just 10 first downs, recording one or less on 14 of their 16 offensive possessions, including no first downs on nine of those drives.

They converted on just four of 15 third-down opportunities and failed both times when they attempted to keep drives going on short-yardage fourth downs.

"We were somewhat nonexistent," Erickson said. "We were very inconsistent on offense and turned it over way too many times."

Where are they going?

Even if the Niners were to win their final four games - a highly improbable scenario at this point - it's unlikely they would advance to the postseason. So the question now is what becomes of the team the rest of the way after such a horrible loss. Do the Niners pack it in? Do they start playing youngsters more with an eye on next season? For sure, a lot of players on this team will be playing for their jobs in San Francisco the rest of this season.

That includes Garcia, who showed the rust of four weeks off to rest his injured left ankle.

After Garrison Hearst rushed for 15 yards on the game's first three offensive plays, Garcia made a nice play-action face and rolled out. But his throw to Terrell Owens was high, and the ball was tipped into the hands of Baltimore linebacker Ed Hartwell, who returned the interception 26 yards to the San Francisco 30.

Three Jamal Lewis rushes later, the Ravens were in the end zone for the only points they would need to win this game.

Of course, they would pile on many more.

But not until the Niners briefly made a game of it by fighting back to within 7-6 on two Todd Peterson field goals, the second of which came with three minutes, 20 seconds remaining before halftime.

But Baltimore's Lamont Brightful returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards to set up the first of three Matt Stover field goals, which began a spree of 17 Baltimore points in a span of 85 seconds as the 49ers self-destructed.

The Niners went three-and-out on their next series, then Baltimore was set up at midfield by a facemask penalty by San Francisco on the ensuing punt. The Ravens scored two plays later on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Anthony Wright to Marcus Robinson, one of the few - but costly - breakdowns by a San Francisco defense.

The 49ers got the ball back with 46 seconds to play and, two plays later, the Ravens were in the end zone again. Garcia's second-down pass was behind Cedrick Wilson, and it bounced into the hands of Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, who returned it 29 yards for a touchdown and a 24-6 halftime lead.

The rout was on.

"We were playing pretty well at that time on defense, we were in striking distance going in at halftime," Erickson said. "And then you have a 17-point shot like that, it turns everything around."

The Niners never could get it turned back around. And now it appears the same can be said for their 2003 season.


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