Stand and deliver

<P>SAN FRANCISCO - Knock-knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Who's there? Defense. </P>

San Francisco 49ers defense. Six consecutive times. The Philadelphia Eagles came knocking on San Francisco's goal line in the fourth quarter of a defensive struggle at 3Com Park on Saturday night. They kept pounding on the doorstep of the end zone. They kept hammering at a defense pushed to the edge to protect a precious three-point lead. The 49ers never let them in. And then, for good measure, they took the ball away, turning the Eagles away with zero points to show for their six-play stay inside San Francisco's 2-yard line with the game swaying in the balance.

They were, like, seven times inside the 1 (1/2)-yard line and we stop them every time, and then come up with an interception, Niners defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "That's big-time defense right there." Yes, it was. It was the kind of defense the 49ers played all day before a soggy but roaring crowd that cheered them to the finish of a convincing 13-3 victory that left San Francisco with another defensive masterpiece at 3Com Park.

That's three in a row, for those counting. And that's 11 victories for the Niners in this amazing turnaround season, with two games still remaining on the schedule as they attempt to secure at least a first-round playoff game at home. Following home shutouts of Buffalo on Dec. 2 and Miami last week, the Niners now have allowed a measly three points in their last three home games, the most stingy streak in San Francisco history.

How about that defense? "It can't get too much better than that," said linebacker Julian Peterson, who had one of San Francisco's three sacks on Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb. ìWeíre growing every week as a unit, and we came to play."

The Niners needed that kind of effort on this day, because Philadelphia's defense - ranked seventh in the NFL ñ came to play, too. But in the end, it was the Niners defense everyone was talking about. Well, to be more specific, it was the goal-line stand that everybody was talking about. And it was a beauty.

"That's the best goal-line stand I've ever seen in my life," offensive tackle Derrick Deese said. Offered quarterback Jeff Garcia, "I don't think you'll ever see another goal-line stand as good as that one." And from Niners coach Steve Mariucci, "That goal-line stance was the difference in the game." Those three guys were watching from the sidelines during the most memorable sequence of stops this revamped defense has had since the Niners began rebuilding their defense after the 1999 season. This is what it was like for some of the guys actually in the middle of it: "I told our guys we had to nut it up," Stubblefield said. "Buckle your chinstrap and grab your jockstrap."

Said linebacker Derek Smith, "The guys were just great. Everyone was just rallying on the field, saying, 'This is a defining moment. We've got to get it, we've got to keep on stopping them. Nobody blinked. We just kept on doing what we'd been doing." And that was stuffing the Eagles. Over and over again. On the strength of field goals of 21 and 32 yards by Jose Cortez, the Niners took a 6-3 lead into the fourth quarter. The way this game was going, that lead looked like it might just hold up. That is, until Duce Staley took a third-down pass over the middle on the first play of the final period and turned it into a breakaway 46-yard gain that took the Eagles from their own territory down to the San Francisco 9-yard line. On the next play, Donovan connected on a pass to James Thrash, who was stopped short of the goal line at the 1.

 That's where the Niners' defense dug in and got tough. On second down, Staley was stopped for a one-yard loss by linebacker Terry Killens. On third down, Donovan passed to Thrash again on a quick slant near the goal line, but he was kept short of the goal line by cornerback Ahmed Plummer. The Eagles had a decision to make. It was fourth down, and they were four inches from paydirt and a touchdown that seemingly would put them in command of this low-scoring affair. What to do?

The Eagles put the ball in the hands of McNabb, their most elusive weapon, and kept it there. McNabb rolled to his right, and appeared to have an open lane to the corner of the end zone. But Smith quickly closed that opening, blasting McNabb out of bounds at the one with the help of linebacker Jamie Winborn. Time to celebrate. But hold on. Safety Lance Schulters was called for defensive holding in the back of the end zone on the play. So the Niners defense had to do it all over again, with the ball this time half the distance closer to the goal line, and with the Eagles owning a fresh new set of downs.

"That's just part of the game," Smith said. "I mean, it happened. You don't want it to happen, but the defense stepped up, came back out and did what we had to do. You could sense the urgency from the defense. Nobody had the look of, "Oh, crap, here we have to go again." Everyone had that look of, "Let's get down there, do what we need to do, and let's get off the field."

And that's just what the Niners did. Staley was stuffed by the middle of the San Francisco line on first down. With the ball just inches from the goal line, Staley attempted to go over the top on second down, but he was met there by Winborn and Killens. No gain. The Eagles had tried enough times without success to penetrate the Niners' front wall. So, on third down, McNabb dropped back to pass and fired a pass over the middle. It was intercepted by Smith.

"It was probably the biggest play of the year for us," Schulters said. After making his first interception as a 49er, Smith smartly curled up and fell down in the end zone. That put the ball out to the San Francisco 20, and the Niners smartly drove 80 yards in seven plays for the game's only touchdown, which came on a 32-yard scoring strike from Garcia to Terrell Owens. As it turned out, the Niners didn't need those game-clinching points after the way their defense had done a number on the Eagles four minutes earlier.

"The Eagles are a good team, but we knew we could win this game," Schulters said. "We knew this would be a defensive battle. Our goal was to be the best defense on the field today, and we were."

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