As good as it gets

This is as good as it gets for the 49ers, a one-point loss on the road Sunday to the playoff-bound Jacksonville Jaguars during which the San Francisco defense rocked the Jags throughout the afternoon but the San Francisco offense once again played like it's from the stone age with the game on the line.

The Jaguars held on for a 10-9 victory in uncharacteristic wintry conditions at Alltel Stadium, but their one-point lead looked pretty safe during a fourth quarter in which the 49ers managed just 15 yards of offense as quarterback Alex Smith failed to complete any of his nine passes in the period, except the one he threw to the Jacksonville defense.

That's the way a promising afternoon ended for the 49ers against a 10-4 Jacksonville team that seemed to play as though it wouldn't need much effort to win for the sixth time in the seven games. The floundering 49ers, meanwhile, have lost seven in a row and 12 of their last 13.

Getting a questionable pass interference penalty against Niners' cornerback Bruce Thornton on a third-down play to keep the drive alive, Jacksonville got a 32-yard field goal from Josh Scobee with 9:44 remaining to play and then sent its defense out to hound Smith the rest of the way.

The rookie No. 1 overall draft pick failed to respond in the kind of game the 49ers might have won if they had a veteran quarterback with more experience operating in the clutch. But needing to mount just one drive under those conditions to get Joe Nedney in position for a possible game-winning field goal, Smith couldn't even complete a pass.

"We've got some young players that are just developing, and it certainly showed at some times during the game," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said.

Like, for instance, the worst times.

San Francisco's first drive after Scobee's field goal was a three-and-out, its second ended when Smith sailed a duck up for grabs that was tipped and then intercepted by Jacksonville's Kenny Wright. Getting late opportunities after San Francisco's resilient defense stopped the Jags on three consecutive drives, the 49ers got the ball back twice in the final four minutes only to display the offensive futility that has thwarted the team throughout the season.

The first drive began – and was doomed from the start – when rookie tight end Billy Bajema was flagged for a false start. The 49ers punted after a short run by rookie Frank Gore and two incomplete passes by Smith.

The final drive – after the 49ers got the ball back with 1:06 remaining – ended with Smith throwing a questionable deep pass on third-and-3 that was nowhere near intended target Johnnie Morton, then getting flagged for delay of game when he couldn't get the next play off in time. On fourth-and-8, Smith sailed a pass wide and high of receiver Rasheed Marshall, who was open on the play.

After completing his first two passes to begin the game – and producing some strong throws that went for completions of 47, 38 and 28 yards – Smith finished 8 of 24 for 123 yards and a 33.9 quarterback rating as the 49ers were out-gained through the air for the 24th game in a row.

"That was my first real two-minute situation there at the end," Smith said. "With the game on the line, it was a huge experience. There are things that I can learn from this that will help me in the future."

But once again, Smith couldn't help the 49ers in the present. And it was too bad, because San Francisco's defense was strong for the most part, forcing Jacksonville to punt eight times, limiting the Jaguars to eight possessions of 20 yards or less and stuffing running back Greg Jones for no gain on fourth-and-1 after the Jags had reached the San Francisco 6-yard line late in the first quarter.

Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard completed 21 of 40 passes for 216 yards and provided the game's only touchdown on a 13-yard scoring dash around right end out of a shotgun formation midway through the second quarter. But Garrard averaged just 4.8 yards per pass, and the Niners got their hands on a few of his throws in the open field that could have been game-breaking plays.

Alas, rookie cornerback Derrick Johnson and second-year safety Keith Lewis failed to hold onto the football each time.

But at least they came close. Except for some occasional sparks on the three drives that led to Nedney's three field goals, the same can't be said for the San Francisco offense.

In his first NFL start, Gore displayed power and burst while rushing for a game-high 79 yards on 19 carries and leading the 49ers with three receptions for 57 yards. Gore produced 136 of San Francisco's 217 net yards of total offense – the ninth time the 49ers have been limited to that many yards or fewer this season.

It also was the seventh time in 14 games that Nedney did all the scoring for the 49ers, who have failed to score a touchdown in eight games this season.

"There's a lot of positives to see in the game and to get from the game," Nolan said. "But ultimately, it's about winning."

The 49ers came up only one point short of that pursuit Sunday, but somehow it seemed like they were much farther away.


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