Niners go marching into playoffs

<P>Saints lose. 49ers win. </P> <P>At 9:48 p.m. PST on Monday, the wait finally ended. After a nearly three-year hiatus, the Niners are back in the playoffs. It became official Monday night - or Tuesday morning, New Orleans time - when the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard at the Louisiana Superdome, completing the St. Louis Rams' 34-21 victory over the host Saints.</P>

That outcome clinched the 49ers' first playoff berth since 1998, the final year in the team's NFL-record string of 16 consecutive seasons of 10 wins or more. The 49ers were 4-12 in 1999, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1991 and just the second time since 1982. They were 6-10 last year, which also left them out of the postseason. But after blanking the Miami Dolphins 21-0 on Sunday, the Niners reached the 10-victory plateau again. And that's enough to put them back in the playoffs with three games still remaining in the season.

"We're back at that sort of standard now, or at least that minimum level of wins," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said Monday. "But our work is not done."

Everything the Niners needed to happen on Sunday for them to clinch a playoff berth - a win over Miami, a Tampa Bay loss to Chicago and a Washington Redskins loss to Philadelphia - happened. That left them needing just one more thing to fall into place - a New Orleans loss at home Monday night to the Rams.

But on Monday afternoon, Mariucci wasn't sure exactly which team to root for. "Either way, it's going to be good," Mariucci said. "If the Saints lose, that means we're in the playoffs. If the Rams lose, then we're both 10-3 again. We don't clinch a playoff spot just yet, but we're back tied for first place. That's not a bad scenario, either, to still be fighting for the division lead. It'll be nice to have clinched a spot. But I'm not sure if I'm pulling for the Rams or not. That's kind of hard to do."

The Rams also clinched a playoff berth with their victory Monday. St. Louis, Chicago and San Francisco all have clinched NFC playoff berths with three games still remaining.

If the playoffs were to begin today, the 49ers would be the top wild card and the fourth seed in the six-team NFC playoffs. They would host the Green Bay Packers, currently the No. 5 seed, on wild-card weekend. With St. Louis now holding a virtual two-game lead over the Niners with three remaining, San Francisco will work the remainder of the season to hold onto the position it currently holds.

"We'd like to find a way to have a home game in the playoffs," Mariucci said. "Obviously, being in that game is the most important thing. Playing it here at home would be very nice. And we'll make every effort to do that with these last three games."

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