Comeback for ages provides win to savor

Everything fell apart for the 49ers on Sunday. And then they put it back together again. Well on their desultory way to securing status as the very worst team in the NFL, the Niners instead climbed suddenly from the abyss with an incredible comeback. The late rally left them with a thrilling – almost magical – overtime victory against the Arizona Cardinals that lifted spirits and provided hope on a tumultuous afternoon that threatened to send morale to its lowest point in recent memory.

But after Todd Peterson's 32-yard field goal ended a stunning 31-28 victory, the San Francisco locker room was filled with jubilation and excitement, the kind you don't often see with 1-4 teams.

But there was a reason for all that. This one was definitely well worth celebrating.

"Man, it's unbelievable," said linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, who led the Niners with 10 tackles. "We finally figured out what we're working for."

They figured it out not a moment too late.

The 49ers, apparently doomed again by a rash of killer mistakes, trailed 28-12 with less than five minutes remaining. Do the math. They had a one-way ticket to a 0-5 record, which would have left them as the only winless team in the NFC and – even though Miami also is 0-5 – certainly would have sent them to the bottom of NFL rankings throughout the football world.

As the Niners prepared to seemingly finish out the string of another horrible loss – one made even worse by the loss of All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson to a season-ending torn Achilles tendon – the crowd began to pour out of Monster Park, just like the week before after the Niners trailed the St. Louis Rams 24-0 entering the final period.

"A lot of them (fans) bailed," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "I was about to go with them."

But then something happened. The Niners responded to Larry Fitzgerald's second touchdown reception – a 24-yard scoring play that put Arizona ahead by 16 points with 8:19 to play – by assembling an 80-yard touchdown drive in less that four minutes.

Then they made the two-point conversion.

Then their defense stopped the Cardinals on three plays.

Then quarterback Tim Rattay, on his way to passing for a career-high 417 yards, led the Niners down the field again on a 72-yard drive that was culminated by his 23-yard scoring strike to Brandon Lloyd.

Then Rattay, who had run in the earlier two-point conversion, hooked up with Lloyd for another.

Instant pandemonium. Not to mention unexpected overtime.

"What can you say about these guys?" Erickson said. "They were down and out and there wasn't anyone in the stadium that thought we had any chance to come back. Who would? To come back and make two two-point conversions and then go down and win it has to be one of the biggest thrills for me. Heck, we were running out of two-point plays. Something had to turn right for us, and it did."

Did it ever.

With Peterson leading cheers from the sidelines while wearing crutches – and then attempting to walk (wearing a protective boot) to midfield for the overtime coin toss – everything continued going San Francisco's way, a drastic departure from most of the 2004 season that had preceded the Niners' madcap rally down the stretch.

First, San Francisco won the coin toss. Then, after Ratty threw three consecutive incompletions, Arizona defensive end Darnell Dockett was whistled for roughing him on third down. That was the last break the Niners needed. The next time they faced a third down, Peterson drilled the winning field goal.

"We needed it," Peterson said. "We know we are a good team. We've been struggling. We've made a lot of mistakes along the way. But the bottom line is there's a lot of character on this team. And there's a lot of guys who care about each other and playing hard and doing their job with excellence. Today, it paid off."

There were excellent performances to go around for the Niners – including tight end Eric Johnson's 13 receptions for 162 yard receiving, the most ever by a tight end in franchise history – but Rattay had to be at the top of the list. He shrugged off another day of constant harassment – he was sacked five times – and continued to emerge as a poised and productive quarterback and team leader.

And now he has a comeback for the ages to his credit after throwing a team-record 38 completions on a career-high 57 attempts. It was the first 400-yard passing game by a San Francisco quarterback since 2000.

And all this after the fans began chanting for backup Ken Dorsey after the Niners fell behind by 16 midway through the fourth quarter. Erickson said he never considered making that move.

"We kept fighting and guys kept making plays," said Rattay, who completed 14 of 20 for 115 yards and two TDs in the fourth quarter. "We were thinking that we can win the game. Two touchdowns and two two-point conversions. We're always thinking that. You are never out of it, you know? It's happened so much and this team knows that we have to keep fighting and fighting and you never know."

But the Niners certainly appeared out of it after a crucial lost fumble by Jamal Robertson flipped the momentum to Arizona and deflated a defense that had played inspired ball without Peterson in the third quarter.

Robertson fumbled at the Arizona 14-yard line without being hit by a defender on the final play of the third period – just as it appeared San Francisco was taking control of the game and was about to take its first lead.

Instead, the Niners – trailing 14-12 at the time – wilted and allowed Arizona touchdowns on its next two drives. An earlier fumble by Rattay also resulted in an Arizona touchdown, and the Niners again hurt themselves with typical breakdowns and 11 penalties for 85 negative yards.

But this time, all that atrocious play was just setting up a happy ending.

Make that, a VERY happy ending.

"To overcome those things, that says something about this team," Erickson said. "To come back and win like that when all the odds are against you and everyone's already counted you out. … It's been a very hard month on all of us. It hasn't been very much fun. But to have this for a couple of hours makes it worthwhile until tomorrow morning. We're just going to savor this one, because the other four weren't much fun."


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