Blown away

The Force was with them. And even that wasn't enough for the floundering 49ers to overcome the error of their ways Sunday afternoon at windswept Soldier Field.

Given every opportunity by the almost equally inept Chicago Bears, the 49ers couldn't take advantage of four Chicago turnovers or the powerful gusts that often blew in their favor while absorbing a galling 17-9 that dropped them to 2-7.

One gust that definitely didn't blow in their favor, however, was Nathan Vasher swooshing down the right sideline with no time remaining on the clock in the first half to return a missed field goal 108 yards for a touchdown – the longest play in NFL history.

That set the tone for the second half in a game it appeared the 49ers actually had a good chance of winning. But even three lost fumbles by Chicago punt returner Bobby Wade, two wind-thwarted field goal tries by the Bears and another quality performance by San Francisco's overworked defense couldn't overcome another pathetic outing by the Niners' dumbed-down offense.

There was no consoling linebacker Derek Smith afterwards, even though the 49ers limited the Chicago offense to just 12 first downs and 239 total yards.

"I'm not trying to win (expletive) consolation prizes," Smith said. "I'm trying to win a (expletive) game. If we needed to hold them to eight points to win, that's what we needed to do. We didn't hold up our end."

Chicago's only offensive touchdown came on the second play of the fourth quarter, and it was aided by two highly suspect penalties on cornerback Shawntae Spencer and linebacker Andre Carter that moved the Bears to the San Francisco 7-yard line. Third-string tailback Adrian Peterson (120 yards on 24 carries) ran the football into the end zone from there to give Chicago a 14-6 lead.

That would be all the points the Bears would need, but they kept San Francisco in the game by giving the 49ers more chances. Wade muffed a punt for the third time just 90 seconds later, setting up San Francisco with a first-and-goal from the Chicago 2 and giving the Niners a prime opportunity to further tighten the game – or even tie it.

But the miserable San Francisco offense screwed it up again. Kevan Barlow (58 yards rushing on 24 carries) plunged into the line for no gain on first down. Quarterback Cody Pickett's bootleg around right end was stuffed after a one-yard gain on second down. Then, on third-and-goal from the 1, the Niners simply imploded.

First, they were flagged for having 12 men in the huddle. After that penalty, the 49ers received another flag for delay of game. Now it was third-and-11, and Pickett's perfect throw on a slant pattern went through Brandon Lloyd's hands at the goal line. Lloyd, cringing as the pass came his way, short-armed the ball on what should have been a touchdown catch.

As it was, the 49ers – who settled for Joe Nedney's third field goal, a 29-yarder to make it 14-9 with 10:54 minutes remaining – went without a touchdown for the third consecutive game, the first time that has happened in San Francisco's 60-year history.

"The defense played great," Pickett said. "When we get the ball down in the red zone, we have to convert. We just didn't execute."

Pickett led the way in that pursuit, completing just one of his 13 passes, hitting Lloyd with a 28-yard throw on the third play of the third quarter to keep alive a drive that led to Nedney's second field goal that brought the 49ers within 7-6.

That's right. The 49ers finished the afternoon with just one pass completion – the fewest in a game in team history.

The 49ers now know well what people are talking about when they call Chicago the "Windy City." With swirling crosswinds up to 47 mph causing havoc throughout the afternoon, Pickett's throws often sailed far off the mark, even when he had open receivers, which wasn't often.

"I've never even heard of conditions like this," said 49ers offensive lineman Eric Heitmann, the team's regular right guard who started at center Sunday in place of injured Jeremy Newberry. "But you play on Sunday regardless of what the weather is, and you have to be able to adapt to it."

The Bears had problems adapting to it, too. Robbie Gould's 39-yard field goal attempt late in the first quarter was headed straight down the middle until the wind – as if it were a hand from the heavens above – grabbed the ball and pulled it drastically to the right where it missed the goal posts by almost 20 yards.

After the Bears drove to the San Francisco 9 late in the second quarter, the wind again played tricks with the snap to holder Brad Maynard, who was unable to get the ball down for Gould on a 27-yard field-goal attempt, preserving the 3-0 lead the Niners had taken earlier in the period on Nedney's 30-yard field goal.

After punting from their own 8 three plays later – San Francisco had five three-and-outs Sunday to add to its league-leading total – the 49ers got another break when Wade fumbled the ball away for the second time. Jason McAddley recovered with 2:31 remaining before the half.

Rookie running back Frank Gore – one of the lone bright spots on offense with 60 yards rushing on 15 carries – ripped off a 19-yard gain while carrying the ball six consecutive times to take the 49ers to the Chicago 34. Two plays later, Nedney set up for a 52-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the first half that could have given San Francisco a 6-0 lead at the intermission.

Instead, in a stunning turnaround, the 49ers went into the locker room trailing 7-3 at halftime.

Nedney's kick appeared to have good distance, but it hit a wall of wind as it approached the goal post and tailed off short and to the right, where Vasher caught it deep in the end zone.

He almost downed the ball, but after hesitating, Vasher decided to run it out.

Good decision. He bounced away from a pack of bodies near the 15, reversed field to the right, picked up blockers and then got key blocks down the sideline from teammates Lance Briggs, Chris Harris and Brian Urlacher to take it all the way back for the longest play the NFL ever has seen.

"All the guys start out left, and if there's nothing to the left, we always have a lot of field to the right," Vasher said. "I just felt like I could outrun a lot of guys at that angle. With the field-goal team out there, there were no defensive backs or wide receivers. You're out there with the big boys. I was feeling like I was running the 400 meters out there."

The 49ers, meanwhile, had that familiar sinking feeling, one they've come to know all too well this season.

And, as the wind blew in their faces with contempt, that feeling never went away the rest of the afternoon, no matter how hard their defense tried to make it otherwise.

"It's pretty rough for us," linebacker Julian Peterson said. "I thought we played well enough to win."


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