Look at these 49ers now. With their impressive 40-21 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the Niners are 8-2. They will undoubtedly be playing some serious January football again this winter.
"Our expectations are to prepare for next week's game and win it," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said, declining to make any pronouncements about the rising expectations of a young team that went 6-10 a year ago.
"We have a one-game season against the (Buffalo) Bills. We approach it like that each week. If you approach it that way, the playoff picture will take care of itself." After the 49ers rallied from a one-point deficit in the third quarter, they did not fool around Sunday against the Colts. For the first time in a long time, the 49ers could savor a runaway victory.
"This might be our best four quarters of football this year in all three aspects of the game," Mariucci said. The 49ers' defense yielded 491 yards of total offense but helped propel the team with five turnovers that led to 24 points, including safety Zack Bronson's 48-yard interception return for a touchdown. Those points gave the 49ers a 27-21 lead late in the third quarter. It was Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's first four-interception day of his four-year career. Running back Garrison Hearst needed just 12 carries to rush for 106 yards and his first two touchdowns since late in the 1998 season. The 49ers showed optimum offensive balance with 22 passes and 23 runs.
And then there were special teams, a phase that had started the season so promisingly only to hit the skids in recent weeks. The 49ers twice started possessions in Colts territory after kickoffs.
"We had awesome field position," said 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, who completed 14 of 22 passes for 179 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. "That was a big key in the game. Vinny Sutherland and the kickoff return team and punt return team did an outstanding job of making large gains. That's something we emphasized all week."
Everything fell into place for the 49ers, who had not experienced a lopsided game this season. Four of their first nine games went into overtime, with three others decided by four or fewer points. "This is something we needed," said 49ers receiver Terrell Owens, who caught six passes for 103 yards and his league-leading 12th touchdown despite playing on a bum ankle. "We have the talent but we've been unable to put teams away. We haven't reached 40 points in a while. We took it upon ourselves to take the crowd out of the game."
The 49ers were outgained by 151 yards (491-340) but they often did not have to travel far to get their points. The 49ers had touchdown drives of 78, 43, 40 and 41 yards. Their average starting position was the 39-yard line, while the Colts' average drive began at the 24. The 49ers entered the game with 11 takeaways in nine games, with only Buffalo having forced fewer turnovers. This is just what 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora wanted to see from his unit.
"Our philosophy as a defensive staff has always been, we're going to preach it, we're going to work on it and we're going to talk it," Mora said. "But when it's not coming, we're not going to grind it into those guys because then they get uptight. "I've always believed sacks and turnovers come in bunches. Today we got a bunch of them. We talked about this being a pivotal game as far as maturing as a defensive unit that can go get the ball for our offense. We made some strides. It was good that we did that."
Cornerback Ahmed Plummer intercepted his fourth and fifth passes of the season, which led to 10 points. Plummer was locked up most of the day on Colts receiver Marvin Harrison, who shook free for eight catches for 128 yards and a touchdown. "They have great playmakers over there, and they're going to make plays and we had to match that," Plummer said. "We had some guys really step up."
One of those players was Bronson, who turned in the biggest play of the game when he picked off Manning's pass late in the third quarter and turned in a beautiful open-field run for a 48-yard interception return. "I wasn't going to run out of bounds," said Bronson, who also recovered a fumble later in the game. "I was going to try to go home with it." Sutherland did more than his fair share as the 49ers won the battle of field position. He averaged 33.5 yards on four kickoff returns and had a nifty 14-yard punt return. "The head man put an emphasis on that this week," Sutherland said.
Said special-teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven, "Today we took advantage of our opportunities better. We probably held our blocks a little better and tried to time the wedge with (Sutherland) a little better. And he hit the holes right where it was designed to go." Then, of course, there is Hearst. It's safe to say that Hearst has made a complete recovery from the broken ankle and complications that threatened to end his career. Hearst twice outran the Colts secondary after bursting through holes.
Late in the second quarter, Hearst started off the left side and ended up cutting all the way back across the field on a 28-yard touchdown run. In the fourth quarter, the 49ers were content to just keep the clock running when offensive coordinator Greg Knapp called Hearst's number on a third-and-12. Hearst turned it into a 43-yard scoring run that finished the scoring and most definitely finished off the Colts. "Everybody on this team wanted this," Hearst said. "We needed that. More than anything, the O-line was playing hard. The holes were there. Those guys were just driving."