Saints debacle steered Niners toward success

The 49ers remember it well. Who possibly could forget it? It definitely was the low point of the 2000 season, and may have been the lowest point to which the Niners had sunk in more than 20 years.

We're talking here about the last time San Francisco lined up against the New Orleans Saints. It was just more than a year ago when the Niners limped into the Louisiana Superdome last Nov. 5 with a five-game losing streak. It was about to become six - quickly - and dropped the Niners to 2-8, their worst start since 1979.

After the 31-15 loss, coach Steve Mariucci said his team had hit "rock bottom." That happened during the first half, when the Saints rolled to a 28-0 halftime lead that climbed to 31-0 in the third quarter. The Saints added insult to injury by going for - and making - a fourth-and-1 play at their own 29-yard line. New Orleans - which also recovered its own onside kick with a 14-0 lead - showed the Niners absolutely no respect. But that game actually was a springboard to better things for the Niners, a launching pad from which they vaulted to where they are today.

They bring a 5-2 record into Sunday's pivotal NFC West clash with the Saints (4-3) at San Francisco's 3Com Park. The Niners came out of the visitor's locker room last year and, after New Orleans kicked a field goal to make it 31-0, outplayed the Saints while scoring the game's final 15 points. "And for whatever reason, we began playing better football after that," Mariucci said. It has carried over to this season. After the debacle in Louisiana a year ago, the Niners finished the season by winning four of their final six games.

They are 9-4 since the last time they met the Saints, one of the NFL's best records over that span The Niners also appear much more ready to play the Saints than they would have been on Sept. 16, when they originally were scheduled to meet New Orleans for the first time this season at The Superdome. But that game was postponed after the horrific and tragic events of Sept. 11 and will be played at the end of season on Jan. 6.

"We've had time to continue to grow, continue to mature and we've experienced a lot of success in that time," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "Success breeds positive things within the locker room. So our confidence has continued to build, and that probably wouldn't have been the case going into New Orleans at that time." Said Mariucci: "I don't know that our team was as ready to play these guys at that point in the season. I think we're a better team now than early in the year." A better team that still needs a victory over a legitimate playoff contender to truly be considered one itself by many NFL observers.

With the Saints coming to town, that chance has arrived. Nobody will doubt the Niners' record if they add another win to it this week. "It's going to be important for us to go out there and prove to ourselves that we can beat playoff-caliber teams, and we haven't necessarily done that as of yet," Garcia said. "We're 5-2 and we're very excited about that, but we need to legitimize that and prove to the league, and prove to ourselves, that we can play with the top teams in the league."

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