But horizontal? Not quite.
Not these San Francisco 49ers. On a day when not everything went quite right for quite a while, the Niners refused to let a variety of factors get them down. And they refused to be put down by a team such as the Detroit Lions, who entered Sunday's game at 3Com Park with the worst record in the NFL. It's even worse now, after the 49ers shrugged off yet another slow start and turned a 10-point deficit late in the first half into a 21-13 victory that wasn't nearly as close as the final score.
Here are numbers that better describe the way the Niners put aside their early problems and then put aside the Lions: San Francisco held a whopping 427-131 advantage in total yardage. And here's one of several plays to describe just how tough a time the Niners, despite those lopsided statistics, actually had in finishing off this one: With one minute, 26 seconds to play, Detroit receiver Larry Foster got behind San Francisco's secondary for what appeared would be a touchdown that would put the Lions in position to tie with a two-point conversion. Foster dropped the pass.
Sunday's game was a lot like that. The Niners persevered, and beat a team they were better than, a team they should have beaten. That hasn't always happened this season in the topsy-turvy NFL. "It was a good locker room," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said afterward, "but it wasn't all crazy like coming back to beat Atlanta. It was a game we hoped we could win, and a game we thought we could win." And a game they had to win if they expect to legitimately challenge for the playoffs this season.
After giving away a victory in Chicago last week – in a game they led 28-9 midway through the third quarter – beating winless Detroit was a must. It doesn't matter if it didn't look too pretty. "This win was good for this team, coming off last week," said tackle Dana Stubblefield, who had one of the Niners' four quarterback sacks. "To get a win today helped get some of our confidence back. This one was a big one for that reason, and now we've got an even bigger one next week."
That would be next Sunday, when the New Orleans Saints come to town in what will be the Niners' biggest game of the season to date. They'll no doubt need to play better against the Saints than they have the past two weeks. Particularly the way they played at the start Sunday, when the Niners couldn't seem to kick-start their offense, which actually put the Lions on the scoreboard when Robert Bailey intercepted a Jeff Garcia pass on the 12th play of San Francisco's opening drive and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown that put Detroit ahead 7-0. That was the first of three turnovers by Garcia.
The Niners also had two Jose Cortez field-goal attempts blocked, the first of which set up a nine-play drive that led to Jason Hanson's 39-yard field goal. That put the Lions ahead 10-0 before the Niners finally got on the scoreboard in the final minute of the first half. "We flopped around for a while, but we did the things we had to do to win this game," Mariucci said. "We haven't played our best game yet. We are 5-2, and we haven't put four quarters away yet. That's the good news. There's more out there for us. We're a work in progress. We aren't as good as we're going to be. We've got a long way to go. We simply haven't put four quarters together yet. That makes me feel good about what the prospects can be."
Mariucci also was feeling good about the way his team responded after an emotional week that followed the disgusting Bears loss. Several coaches and players attended a mid-week funeral for the son – a policeman killed in the line of duty - of long-time Niners' front office employee Sandy Fontana. On that same Wednesday, receiver Terrell Owens made several volatile remarks about the offensive strategy while also criticizing Mariucci. Those comments created controversy that swirled around the Niners the remainder of the week. But when it really counted Sunday, it was Owens swirling into the end zone – twice – to complete touchdown plays as only he can. The first came on a 30-yard touchdown strike from Garcia to complete San Francisco's 66-yard drive to open the second half.
The second came early in the fourth quarter after the Lions had taken advantage of two Niners' penalties – San Francisco had 83 yards in penalties Sunday – to drive for a 45-yard Hanson field goal and creep within 14-13. This time, Owens put a corner move on Terry Fair in the end zone that left the Detroit cornerback helpless. Garcia put the pass on the money, and the seven-yard scoring play put the Niners in control 21-13. "I'm just trying to focus and stay in the game, trying to make a play on every play," said Owens, who had game-high totals of nine receptions for 125 yards. "When my number's called, I'm going to be prepared. I think everybody contributed to the win today." That's what makes it so difficult to understand why the Niners were hanging on at the end. Garcia completed 26 of 35 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns.
Garrison Hearst had another fine afternoon, ploughing for 82 yards on the ground. He was complemented by Kevan Barlow, who averaged 6.6 yards a carry while gaining 53 yards. J.J. Stokes also got in the act with six receptions for 72 yards. The defense allowed only two drives of more than 39 yards and the Niners had the ball for more than 38 minutes, giving them a huge 17-minute edge in time of possession. Those numbers would seem to add up to something more decisive. But all that really seemed to matter to the Niners were the final numbers on the scoreboard.
"It was not an easy week for us, and we came out and it wasn't easy today, either," Garcia said. "We had a lot of ups and downs. There was some good plays, there was some bad plays. It was just one of those game where it really didn't look pretty. But we're fortunate. We did enough to win and pull out the victory. We're thankful and we're happy with this win. We're excited about being 5-2, and we have a great opportunity to play the Saints back here at home next week." And next week, said safety Niners Lance Schulters, "We can't start slow or flat against the Saints."