The San Francisco 49ers wrapped up the regular season Sunday afternoon by forcing six turnovers and posting their third shutout in six weeks in a dominating 38-0 rout of the New Orleans Saints before a disgruntled gathering in the half-empty Superdome. But other than providing some momentum for the playoffs, the win didn't change the postseason travel itinerary. Green Bay's victory over the New York Giants rendered the 49ers' victory meaningless, aside from whatever intangibles can be garnered from a feel-good finale.
Despite the 49ers' lopsided win, the Packers will meet the 49ers in a wild-card game next weekend at frosty Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Both teams finished the regular season 12-4, but the Packers get the homefield edge by virtue of a superior record against conference opponents. Still, the 49ers were pleased to have exorcised the lingering demons of their 27-21 loss a week earlier to the Cowboys.
"It's important to go to the playoffs on a positive note, especially after last week's game," said quarterback Jeff Garcia, who threw four touchdown passes, including 56- and 60-yard first-quarter strikes to Terrell Owens. "To be able to come out and play against the Saints … and put together a game like we did was just a tribute to the guys."
Still, the 49ers have only themselves to blame for the fact that they won't get to play the Packers at 3Com Park. Their loss on Dec. 30 in Dallas put them in a position where they needed Green Bay to lose to the Giants in order to host the Packers. Instead, they will have to travel, and they will need to pack their warmest clothes. This will be the 13th playoff game the Packers have hosted in their storied history, and they have never lost at home in the postseason, going 10-0 in Green Bay and 2-0 in Milwaukee.
"We're not intimidated by it," said rookie defensive end Andre Carter, who had two sacks against the Saints. "That's great for them. But what are we going to do? We've got to challenge them."
The Niners did a pretty good job of challenging the Saints (7-9), whipping them on both sides of the ball and holding an advantage in total yardage (407-126) that was similar to the way they dominated on the scoreboard. They will need to do the same kind of thing in Green Bay, although against the Packers they will not have the benefit of facing a team that basically quit a month ago, as New Orleans appeared to do.
The Saints, who won the NFC West just last season, were outscored 126-31 in their last three games this year and ended the season with a four-game losing streak when they were in the driver's seat for a playoff berth.
"This past month has been hard, not just on me but on everyone," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. Owens added, "They played like they kind of packed their bags."
The 49ers did just about everything right Sunday. Offensively, after an absence of several weeks, the passing game returned to their arsenal. Garcia and Owens connected for the two longest of their 16 touchdowns this season, and Garcia threw for 263 yards, his highest total since he threw for 305 in a Nov. 18 overtime win at Carolina. J.J. Stokes caught a team-high six passes, including his seventh touchdown of the season. With the running game adding 138 yards, the 49ers showed their best offensive balance in weeks. Rookie Kevan Barlow led the way with 63 yards, and Garrison Hearst added 57, completing his comeback season with 1,208 yards.
Fullback Terry Jackson, filling in for the injured Fred Beasley (broken hand), ran for one touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass. In other words, a 49ers attack that was barely one-dimensional in Dallas was multidimensional against the Saints.
"We haven't been as effective through the air in the past month," Garcia said. "I thought it was something we needed to get back to." Owens added, "Definitely with this game today, it gives us an idea of what we can do."
Defensively, the 49ers completely regrouped from their shoddy effort against Dallas, even though they were without starting left cornerback Ahmed Plummer, who has a hip pointer. Additionally, the 49ers lost starting defensive end John Engelberger to a right high ankle sprain, and it's doubtful he'll play in Green Bay. Plummer's spot was taken by rookie Rashad Holman, and first-year defensive end Bobby Setzer replaced Engelberger. Despite the injuries, the 49ers didn't miss a beat against the turnover-prone Saints. Safety Zack Bronson had his sixth and seventh interceptions of the season, Lance Schulters and Jamie Winborn also picked off passes by Aaron Brooks, and the 49ers recovered a pair of fumbles by the always unsure-handed Ricky Williams. Bronson finished the season with seven interceptions, tied for the team lead with Plummer.
"When we're up for a game, we're up for a game," Schulters said. "This week, we were up for this game. We got some turnovers early, we got some pressure (on Brooks), and it kind of made us even more energized. We knew we had to win just to give ourselves a chance to play at home, but Green Bay won as well. But it was important that we played well going into the playoffs." Schulters reiterated what he said during the week – that the Dallas loss may have helped the Niners.
"You're not up for every single game you play," Schulters said. "Having that loss kind of brought us back to reality. It made us hungry again. We ran around, we were more focused, and we executed well." And now, the Niners have to find a way to do it again, this time in a locale where the Packers have defined postseason invincibility. "It's just us, we really have to count on one another, and not worry about other factors, their home crowd and the weather and things of that nature," defensive tackle Bryant Young said.
Garcia added, "If we needed (the Dallas loss) to be a wake-up call, it definitely was a wake-up call and we handled our business today, and it's a situation where we're now looking forward to a great opportunity in Green Bay. There are going to be a lot of elements to deal with, but it's going to be a lot of fun."