It came down to this: San Francisco's struggling, patchwork offense was overmatched by an aggressive, unyielding Washington defense that entered the game ranked No. 2 in the NFL, then played like it most of the day. The 49ers never folded, playing some tough defense of their own in the red zone, but four interceptions by quarterback Ken Dorsey and San Francisco's inability to move the ball with any consistency paved the way for the Redskins to roll to a convincing 26-16 victory that dropped the Niners to 2-12 with two weeks remaining in the season. Those two games are against surging Buffalo at home and defending Super Bowl champion New England on the road, so the Niners may have seen their best chance at winning the rest of this season vanish in a typical performance during which they were not good enough on either side of the ball. Offense, as usual, was the primary culprit. "You saw it," said coach Dennis Erickson, who has seen plenty of the same already this season. "You can't turn the football over like we did. It's like a broken record. I'm getting tired of saying it myself." Watching it is becoming even more tiresome. After a breakthrough performance in last week's 31-28 overtime victory at Arizona, Dorsey saw his quarterback rating dip back into the dismal 40s for the third time in his last four starts. His first interception came late in the first quarter when the 49ers were deadlocked in 7-7 game and looking to take the initiative and move ahead. The San Francisco defense was able to limit the damage and held the Redskins to a field goal on their ensuing drive. Dorsey's second pick came two possessions later, when he was hit as he threw and the ball fluttered in the air for an easy interception that defensive end Ron Warner returned 39 yards to the San Francisco 9. Again, the Niners' defense held firm and limited the Redskins to a field goal. Dorsey's third interception? "It was a killer," Dorsey said. It sure was. After rookie Keith Lewis blocked a punt that resulted in a safety that brought the Niners within 16-9, San Francisco got the ball back on the ensuing free kick and drove to the Washington 23. On third down, Dorsey looked right, then threw back toward receiver Cedrick Wilson in the middle as the pocket broke down around him. Bad decision. Very, very bad decision. Dorsey threw the ball into the hands of linebacker Antonio Pierce, who had "collisioned" Wilson out of the way. Pierce turned left, rode a blocking convoy around the corner and turned the pick into a 78-yard touchdown return that stunned the entire stadium and increased Washington's lead to 23-9. "I just can't do that to the team," Dorsey said. "We were going to get at least three points off that. The worst we would have been down is four points at halftime. Two very costly decisions. That sums up the game right there." Dorsey included his first interception in that summation, because the Niners were at the 50-yard line and threatening when he threw it. That was the first of 10 consecutive San Francisco possessions that ended either with an Andy Lee punt or a Dorsey interception. That put the onus on the defense, a unit that responded well after Washington took the opening drive and rammed it down San Francisco's throat on a 10-play, 72-yard march to the end zone that set the early tone. "On that first drive, they kind of had our number," 49ers linebacker Derek Smith said. "But we were able to adjust to what they were doing." The only time the Redskins saw the end zone the rest of the day is when Pierce got them there. But with Clinton Portis gaining 110 yards on 35 carries, and quarterback Patrick Ramsey having the kind of productive, efficient afternoon that Dorsey didn't, the Redskins were able to control the ball for almost 37 minutes. The Niners stopped Washington inside the San Francisco 10 three times, but each of those drives ended with a Jeff Chandler field goal. Chandler, released by the 49ers last year after they used a fourth-round draft pick to acquire him in 2002, had four field goals, including a 49-yarder. But those field goals at least kept San Francisco breathing and within striking distance. But the Niners' comeback hopes faded slowly as it became painfully obvious they couldn't dent Washington's defense with any kind of consistency. "The defense gave us our chances to win," Erickson said. "Time after time, they kept us in the game. But we didn't make plays when we were throwing the football. We couldn't get any (offensive) rhythm in the second half until the end of the game." Chandler kicked his fourth field goal after the Redskins went 78 yards on 15 plays with their first possession of the second half, a drive that burned 9:19 off the clock. Washington sat on its lead the rest of day, but the Niners couldn't cut into the 26-7 margin until Dorsey hit Curtis Conway with an 11-yard touchdown pass with 4:29 to play. Dorsey also had a 17-yard scoring throw to Brandon Lloyd in the first quarter, but his fourth interception on a fourth-down play with 2:34 left ended any hopes of a miraculous comeback. The Niners never touched the ball again. And so, the final outcome pretty well indicated how the game went. The Redskins held a 337-254 advantage in total yardage, and they were never threatened again after the Niners tried – and failed – to make it interesting at the end of the first half. "I have to give credit to the 49ers," Washington coach Joe Gibbs said. "They fought hard and we knew that would be the case." Some consolation. The Niners have plenty of fight in them. What they don't have is wins, and there might not be any more coming in 2004.
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