The battle for No. 1

Sunday's game between the 49ers and Miami Dolphins is attracting some national attention, and it's for all the wrong reasons. This is the NFL's Bottom Bowl, with a No. 1 prize going to the loser, and everybody seems to have some kind of disparaging take on an epic struggle of 1-9 teams. And, says Niners tight end Eric Johnson, "That hurts bad."

But that's reality. The Niners have been labeled by many as the worst team in the league for about a month now, and this may be their best chance the rest of the year to prove otherwise.

Not to mention their last chance.

"It's something we've been dealing with all season," said Johnson, who may be the only player on the San Francisco roster who's worthy of any legitimate Pro Bowl consideration with six games remaining. "The critics are on us. And I can't blame them, because we're 1-9. What can we do? We have to prove them wrong. Until we do that, how can we expect not for them to say that?"

The Niners reached a new low-point in this season of lows during Sunday's 35-3 loss at Tampa Bay, an effort that was as horrible as that final score indicates and truly put their futility into perspective. So, they backed away on Monday, meeting at different times in individual groups instead of as a team, before Tuesday's off day. They came back Wednesday "refocused," Johnson said, and had their "best practice in weeks."

The Niners are not yet resigned to bottom-feeder fate. They still are fighting the ignominy of being the NFL's very worst team, but they know it's now or never this week if they're going to make any serious movement from the No. 1 ranking in the league's upside-down power poll.

Going by records alone, nobody is close to being as bad as the 49ers and Dolphins, who each own the worst mark in their respective conferences. There are no two-win teams in the NFL. Everybody else has at least three victories. Even after Sunday's encounter at San Francisco's Monster Park, the Dolphins and Niners still will own the league's two worst records.

But this is the first step up for one of these teams. And a big step away from the No. 1 overall selection in next year's draft, which both teams at this point seem particularly eager to avoid.

That has added a particularly perverse attraction to this game, which is getting some of the national coverage that usually goes to games featuring teams with opposite records. But this is the mighty Dolphins and the mighty 49ers, who both have seen their fortunes turned inside out in the same season.

The 49ers have had 19 winning seasons since 1980. The Dolphins have had 18. No other NFL franchise has more than 16. And no other NFL franchise has more playoff appearances than San Francisco's 18 and Miami's 14 during that same span.

But the enduring success of the recent past doesn't mean much this year.

The 49ers are headed toward their worst finish in a quarter-century, which also was the worst finish in franchise history. The Dolphins already are guaranteed of their first losing season since going 6-10 in 1988 – a final record that would be to die for by either team at this point.

"The Miami Dolphins, as a team, are used to having winning seasons," said interim Dolphins coach Jim Bates.

Just the fact that Bates – Miami's defensive coordinator the past five seasons – was in a position to make that comment Wednesday tells of how Miami's season has turned to shambles. Bates replaced the embattled Dave Wandstedt, who resigned earlier this month despite leading the Dolphins to 41 victories during the previous four seasons.

It has been well-documented what has gone wrong with the 49ers in 2004. The Dolphins have been experiencing similar circumstances – from the loss of key players to the adversity of dealing with the multiple hurricanes that swept through Florida.

"I've never experienced anything like this in my professional career," said Jason Taylor, Miami's two-time Pro Bowl defensive end. "You name it, it has happened to us. We have had to deal with it and we've had to deal with it all in a short period of time. We used to win a lot of games and have a chance to make the playoffs and obviously that is not in the picture now. That's tough to deal with."

Here's the picture: Win Sunday or start making plans for that No. 1 draft pick and the offseason upheaval that comes with it for a team in that position. Miami's remaining schedule doesn't offer many better opportunities to avoid that No. 1 distinction.

But then, neither does San Francisco's. The 49ers still have a home game remaining against a three-win team (Washington), and home (Buffalo) and road (Arizona) meetings with four-win teams. But the Niners know in their hearts they still can't be chasing their second victory when those games roll around.

This is the one. If the Niners don't want to be No. 1 in a bad way, likely for the rest of this year and into 2005, this is where it has to begin.

"We have to show that we're capable of winning a game before we can get anything else rolling," Johnson said. "We have to step it up this week and really focus in. It's really important for us to get a win, just for pride … for San Francisco … for the 49ers."

That about covers it.

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