The end

And so it finally ends, arguably the worst year in San Francisco's 59-year football history, with the 49ers predictably falling apart at the finish of a season that fell apart long ago.

The Niners gave it their best shot in their season finale Sunday at New England. Which is to say, they didn't have nearly enough ammunition to bring down the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.

Despite scoring first and forcing three first-half turnovers, the 49ers eventually made the same killer mistakes that have plagued them all season, and that ultimately denied them an opportunity to end this dismal season with a shocking upset victory.

The Niners did, however, force the Patriots – with nothing to play for besides keeping everybody healthy for the playoffs – to keep their starters in most of the game. New England kept quarterback Tom Brady in until the end of the third period, and the Patriots needed every bit of him to establish order in the second half after San Francisco had threatened to keep it more than just close.

But two second-half fumbles by Maurice Hicks and a stuffed fourth-down attempt inside the New England 10-yard line midway through the final period put the punctuation on the Patriots' 21-7 victory that saddled the 49ers with a 2-14 record to show for a 2004 season that will live in team infamy.

"It's the story of our season," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said of the late miscues. "We had a chance to win that football game."

That is open for debate – especially considering the way the Niners have folded so many other times this season – but San Francisco did make the Patriots work for their second consecutive 14-2 finish.

Sadly, after the good feeling of a respectable effort wears off, the 49ers find themselves at the opposite end of the NFL spectrum with a record that matches the 1978 and 1979 teams for the worst in franchise history.

And that will mean changes in the offseason. Lots of them.

Nobody appears safe, except a few dozen players who will be back next year to start building the franchise from the ground up.

Will Erickson be leading them? That is one of several issues still to be determined in the next few weeks.

"Well, we're going to meet sometime in the next couple of weeks," Erickson said. "I've got to sit down, we've got to evaluate and visit with my coaches. We have to look at everything in this organization. I know that John (owner John York) and Terry (general manager Terry Donahue) want to do that, and I want to do that. And we've got to look and see what's best for the organization to get us to a place where we don't have this kind of season."

In several ways, Sunday's visit to Gillette Stadium was a microcosm of San Francisco's season.

The Patriots pounded the San Francisco defense with a rushing game that averaged 6.2 yards a carry and produced 174 rushing yards, 116 of them by Corey Dillon. New England riddled the San Francisco defense with a steady, efficient passing game paced by Brady, who completed 22 of 30 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns.

What was different were the turnovers forced by the 49ers' defense to end New England's first two drives, the second an interception that Dwaine Carpenter returned 31 yards to the New England 22. That set up quarterback Ken Dorsey's four-yard touchdown pass to Steve Bush for a 7-0 San Francisco lead – ending a streak of 20 consecutive games in which the Patriots had scored first.

After forcing a punt on New England's ensuing drive, the 49ers drove to the Patriots' 21 to set up an opportunity to pad their lead. But Todd Peterson's 39-yard field goal attempt hit the right upright and bounced away – Peterson's first and only miss inside 45 yards this season.

It was the beginning of the end for the 49ers, in more ways than one.

"We came out and we were ready to play," Dorsey said. "We were able to do some things, but we just weren't able to put it all together, to be able to cap off some of those drives. It's just down the stretch some things didn't go our way and we had some tough things happen."

Sound familiar? The same things have happened to the 49ers over and over all season.

After Brady's second touchdown pass gave the Patriots their first lead midway through the third period, Hicks lost a fumble at the New England 33 as the 49ers were attempting to answer back.

That proved to be the back-breaker, although Hicks would lose another fumble on a fourth-down play deep in New England territory in the final minutes. The Patriots answered the first fumble with a quick-hitting, nine-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that settled any doubt about the outcome, even though there was almost the entire fourth quarter still left to play.

That's how quickly the 49ers have gone from good to bad this season.

There were some respectable signs, however. The defense gave another game effort before ultimately being worn down by an offense that was better. By limiting the Patriots to 21 points – the second-fewest points allowed by the Niners in a game all season – San Francisco avoided a franchise record for points allowed. The 49ers surrendered 452 points this year. The record is 453, set in 1999.

Dorsey displayed cool in the pocket and finished with a 92.5 quarterback rating after completing 18 of 29 passes for 189 yards. A few of those passes were dropped, though rookie Rashaun Woods showed one late flash of his potential by taking a Dorsey throw 59 yards down the left sideline on the next-to-last play of the game.

And then there was tailback Kevan Barlow, who for the second consecutive game ran hard, broke tackles and made something positive out of nothing. Barlow finished with 103 yards rushing, though he was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the New England 8 when the Niners still had hope with less than nine minutes remaining.

So there are some of your glimmers of hope for 2005.

But that's about it.

"Our guys played as hard as they could," Erickson said. "I asked them (Saturday) night to just look inside and do the best they could, and they did."

And the best the 49ers could do was end this forgettable season with a two-touchdown loss, which sort of seems appropriate.

"It's definitely hard," safety Tony Parrish said. "Losses stick with you much longer than victories do."

Now the Niners have a record number of losses to stick with them as they head into a 2005 offseason of uncertainty.


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