On Sunday, the 49ers had an extra six seconds to work with when they took the football down by eight points against the Carolina Panthers at Ericsson Stadium. They needed every last second, too.
With gritty quarterback Jeff Garcia continuing his habit of fourth-quarter comebacks, the 49ers tied the score with :01 remaining and then won for the third time in overtime this season - a 25-22 victory over the Panthers.
"Things just came together for us at the end," Garcia said. "It was awesome to get the ball at the start of overtime. Then, we just did what we had to do with the football." The 49ers committed three turnovers, 10 penalties and dropped five passes during a largely lethargic effort. But all that was forgotten after the 49ers turned in their sixth second-half comeback of the season. Garcia tied Joe Montana's team record of four fourth-quarter comeback victories in a season. Montana came from behind four times in the 1989 season.
Garcia completed 34 of a career-high 54 passing attempts for 305 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. With the Panthers focusing much of their attention on Terrell Owens, Garcia managed to incorporate J.J. Stokes into the offense. Stokes caught eight passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns. But Garcia turned back to Owens when they needed him most. Garcia hit Owens on a 7-yard pass with :01 remaining in regulation, then he hooked up with rookie tight end Eric Johnson for the two-point conversion pass to force overtime.
The 49ers (7-2) drove 66 yards after winning the overtime coin toss to set up Jose Cortez for a 26-yard field goal that provided the winning points 4:41 into the extra period. It was San Francisco's third victory in four overtime games this season.
"We were losing at halftime again," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "I told the team that this is not new to us. We have been losing at halftime quite a bit this year. Even in the fourth quarter we were losing the game, and we've been able to manage some drives, some come-from-behind drives that led us to wins." Garcia rallied San Francisco yet again in the fourth quarter as the 49ers took another big step toward a berth in the NFC playoffs.
The victory was important for the 49ers in many areas, most notably that it did not nullify the momentum from the team's emotional 28-27 victory last week over the New Orleans Saints, the defending NFC West champions. "We talked about it all week," Mariucci said. "There are things we need to accomplish as a team: win on the road, win close games, win overtime games and win after a tough loss. The next thing was to win after a difficult victory. "That was an emotional, physical game (against the Saints). We had to get up again the next week. That's not easy to do."
In two overtime victories against the Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers scored in the closing seconds of regulation to tie the game. When the 49ers took over trailing by eight points this time, there seemed to be little doubt what would happen. "I wasn't really nervous when we got the ball," Owens said. "During the course of the week we have a two-minute drill and we always start out at 1:40. With the playmakers we have on the team, we knew we had a chance to win the ballgame." Garcia hit Tai Streets on an eight-yard pass on fourth-and-4 that took the ball to the Carolina 38-yard line with 1:00 remaining. Five plays later, Johnson caught a 21-yard pass to the seven with :06 remaining.
"I saw Eric Johnson break down the middle," Garcia said. "The corner and safety were paying more attention to Terrell Owens and allowed Eric to go one-on-one with a nickel defender." The 49ers called their final timeout and had a play designed for Owens against the single coverage of second-year cornerback Rashard Anderson.
"Those are the situations I like," Owens said. "On the sideline, I'm licking my chops. Everybody knows Michael Jordan - they know he's going to get the ball. And that's how I put myself in the offense. They know I'm going to get the ball and I'm going to work." Garcia took a three-step drop and lofted a pass to Owens in the right back corner of the end zone. His 11th scoring catch of the season withstood the video replay test and the 49ers had pulled within two points.
For the two-point conversion, the 49ers went back to a play they had used successfully two previous times in the game. Both running back Garrison Hearst and fullback Fred Beasley shifted out of the backfield. Hearst went wide to the left and was temporarily uncovered. By the time Garcia took the snap, the Panthers had overcompensated, as three defenders ran out to cover Hearst. The middle of the end zone was left wide open for Johnson, who caught the pass to force overtime.
"We used it before in the game successfully, and it was one of our listed plays as a possible two-point play," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said. "It seemed to work pretty good. We were hoping to get a certain coverage and it worked out that we did. When we were down in the two-point area we had some plays in mind and that was one of them. We thought that would be a good chance to use it." Hearst rushed for 92 yards on 17 carries, with his biggest carry coming in overtime when he beat a Panthers blitz up the middle with a 31-yard run around the right side. After Garcia ran for a yard to set the ball in the middle of the hash marks, Cortez was summoned for his short game-winning kick.
The 49ers and Panthers played their last game as NFC West rivals. With realignment next season, the Panthers are moving to the NFC South. The next time the 49ers are scheduled to play in Charlotte is 2007.