Snowed under

There were a few new twists in the same tired script Sunday, but it was another predictably painful ending for the 49ers. They made it exciting against the Cincinnati Bengals with a prolific offensive display, but killer mistakes and an inability to stop much of anything on defense kept San Francisco winless on the road this year after a 41-38 loss that finishes any hopes the Niners could turn 2003 into a winning season - or a playoff season.

With a steady snow falling at cold and dreary Paul Brown Stadium, the Niners were trampled on the ground for the fourth consecutive game on the road. This time it was by a guy named Rudi Johnson, who gained 163 of his career-high 174 yards in the second half as the Bengals were able to keep the ball away from San Francisco's suddenly explosive offense in the final two quarters.

Add to that two crucial Kevan Barlow fumbles deep in Cincinnati territory, and another by quarterback Jeff Garcia that the Bengals turned into their second touchdown, and the Niners were saddled with their longest road losing streak in 22 years. San Francisco is 0-7 away from home this year and has lost eight consecutive road games dating back to last season, their worst stretch since 1981.

The Bengals turned those three turnovers into 17 of their season-high 41 points.

"You can't turn it over three times any place and expect to win," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "And twice in the red zone, a situation where we were going to get points - and they ended up getting points instead. We dug a hole and battled back, but they got in a position where they could run, and we just couldn't stop it."

That's a rather succinct synopsis of how the 49ers fell to 6-8. They will need to beat NFC front-runner Philadelphia on the road next week and playoff contender Seattle at home the next week in their season finale to avoid a losing season.

Barlow's first fumble set the tone for the game after the Niners had taken the opening kickoff and moved smartly to the Cincinnati 15-yard line. The Bengals immediately took advantage of the gratuitous change in momentum, driving 11 plays the other way for a touchdown that put the first of the game's 79 points on the scoreboard.

The next San Francisco fumble was not by Barlow. It came when Garcia was hit by cornerback Terrell Roberts on a blind-side blitz on the fifth play of the second quarter. Linebacker Kevin Hardy picked up the ball and trotted into the end zone to give the Bengals a 14-0 lead. Garcia had begun a throwing motion when he was hit, but the play was upheld after a replay review.

Barlow's second fumble came as the Niners were attempting to respond to Johnson's 49-yard touchdown burst on a fourth-down play to begin the second half. Barlow had the ball knocked out after he reached the Cincinnati 7 after an 11-yard run.

"There's some times Kevan carries it a little loose," Erickson lamented. "It's all about ball security. When you're around people in a crowd, you have to put that thing away."

Those three fumbles put away any San Francisco hopes at victory. On their other seven offensive drives, the Niners rolled to five touchdowns and a field goal. San Francisco produced a season-high 502 yards and had 31 first downs despite having the ball six minutes less than Cincinnati.

Garcia was spectacular before and after his fumble, completing 26 of 33 passes for 344 yards and long touchdown strikes of 58 yards to Terrell Owens and 41 yards to Tai Streets that quickly brought the Niners back into a 14-14 tie midway through the second quarter.

But because of their inability to stop Cincinnati with any consistency - the Bengals punted only twice all afternoon - the Niners never would get any closer. The Bengals produced 280 of their 393 yards - the most allowed by San Francisco this season - after halftime.

"It was a rough one in the second half," said Niners defensive tackle Andre Carter, who had one of two sacks against Cincinnati quarterback Jon Kitna, who threw for 189 yards and two touchdowns. "We had a difficult time making plays and making calls, and they took advantage of it."

The Niners, trailing 31-17 entering the final period, answered with three fourth-quarter touchdowns, one of them on a 6-yard run by Garcia - who had 51 yards rushing - and two on short bursts by Barlow, who had 85 yards rushing on 18 carries.

But it wasn't enough for the Niners to overcome their mistakes. Isn't that the way it always has been on the road this season?

It is, and that's why the Niners will be home for the holidays this year.

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