National spotlight to glare often on Niners

<P>The NFL released its 2002 schedule on Thursday, and it spoke volumes that the 49ers are back as one of the league's marquee teams. </P>

Two years after having no nationally-televised games on their schedule, the Niners will play before a national audience five times during the regular season, including the maximum three games on Monday Night Football.

The Niners also will begin the season in the first Thursday night season opener in NFL history, a Sept. 5 game against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium that will be broadcast by ESPN. They also will be seen on national television twice during the preseason, including an Aug. 3 game against the Washington Redskins in Osaka, Japan, an American Bowl clash that will begin the NFL's exhibition season.

"I think it's a great endorsement of the 49ers and the history and tradition of our franchise," Niners general manager Terry Donahue said.

"It's a great opportunity as well as a great challenge for our entire organization. We've got a difficult schedule with a lot of marquee appearances, but I do think it shows the broad national appeal our organization has. It's exciting to our whole organization. Is it hard? Yes. Does it put a lot of demands on everyone? Yes. But it sure beats the alternative. I think it also shows great confidence that our team is on solid ground and is going to be very competitive."

The Niners will appear in Monday night games at Seattle on Oct. 14, at home against Philadelphia on November 25 and a possibly titanic season finale at St. Louis on Dec. 30. They'll also play a national Saturday game at Arizona on Dec. 21 before facing the Rams.

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