Best of the worst

The gridiron gods cried down Sunday upon Monster Park, where neither the 49ers nor Houston Texans were good enough to win the Battle of the Bad. So the NFL's two worst teams extended the season into a fifth quarter, where – after a steady rain dissipated – the Niners finally could find a reason to smile. Their 20-17 overtime victory was nothing to brag about, but it did give San Francisco a two-game winning streak to take into 2006 while doubling the team's victory total from the season before.

The 49ers will tell you that's something to build on. And, even if it often looked as ragged as the rest of this predominantly miserable 2005 season, finishing with a pair of wins is much better than the alternative, even if the alternative included a higher selection in the 2006 draft than the 4-12 Niners now will get after dropping the Texans to 2-14.

"It's definitely one win closer to where you want to be," 49ers cornerback/safety Mike Adams said. "That helps a lot when you have goals set ahead of you. The goal is always to win, win, win. And we've won the last two, so now we have a little momentum going into the offseason program."

The 49ers won the hard way in a game that was ugly virtually from start to finish. It was more a case of San Francisco outlasting the Texans than actually beating them, and it took two late mistakes by Houston – and two resulting big plays by Adams – to prevent the visitors from coming out on top.

The 49ers trailed 17-10 until Adams stepped in front of a Tony Banks pass in the final seconds of the third quarter and returned it 40 yards for a tying touchdown. It was seven points that the sputtering San Francisco offense likely never would have been able to deliver in a second-half downpour.

That got the 49ers into overtime, where they won the coin toss but couldn't do anything on their first two possessions. But with 5:31 remaining in the extra period, Adams picked off Banks again, then lateraled the ball to Ben Emanuel, who returned it 35 yards to the Houston 16-yard line.

Three plays later, Joe Nedney drilled a 33-yard field goal to give the 49ers their first two-game winning streak to end a season since 1996.

"That's the pinnacle right there," said Nedney, who made 26 of 28 field-goal attempts this season. "A walk-off home run. That's what you dream about right there."

For the 49ers, it brought a satisfying ending to a long afternoon that threatened to be a nightmare. The 49ers never led until Nedney kicked his game winner.

"I was sitting there on the sidelines in overtime saying, ‘We do not want to finish 3-12-1,' " Nedney said.

Or 3-13, for that matter.

But that's the finish the 49ers were staring at when Houston kicker Kris Brown lined up for a seemingly routine 31-yard field goal with six minutes remaining in regulation. But Brown somehow pushed it to the right of the crossbars – it was a very close call by the officials – giving the 49ers a stay of execution and a chance to pull it out in the end.

With the field getting soggy and slippery, the 49ers attempted only one pass in those final six minutes on an 11-play drive that took them to the Houston 35 in the final minute. But instead of having Nedney attempt a 52-yard field goal in poor conditions, the 49ers punted back to the Texans, effectively sending the game into overtime and prolonging the pain of having to watch two struggling teams go at it longer to decide a victor.

"I didn't want to risk it," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said of passing on the field goal near the end of regulation. "It was outside the yard-line we had discussed (going for it) earlier in the game. I didn't want to give Houston that much time (more than 50 seconds) with their timeouts remaining and needing only to get a few first downs (to get in field-goal range)."

It proved to be a winning decision as the 49ers got the big plays they needed from their defense, as they had gotten much of the afternoon.

Getting plenty of help from San Francisco's inept offense, the Texans struck for a field goal on their second possession and a touchdown on their third. But the 49ers knocked out starting quarterback David Carr late in the second quarter, and Houston managed just one quick-strike touchdown drive (62 yards in four plays) on their final 12 possessions.

It allowed the 49ers to hold a final 324-284 advantage in total yards – the first time this season San Francisco out-gained an opponent.

"Obviously, we are not perfect, we still made mistakes out there and I still made mistakes," said 49ers rookie quarterback Alex Smith. "But to play in overtime like this today, and to come from behind and win each of the last two weeks, I think this is so great for this team."

Smith continued to show flashes of promise looped around poor throws and erratic decisions. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 159 yards, including the first touchdown pass of his career – a 14-yard strike to Brandon Lloyd in the second quarter that brought the 49ers within 10-7 at halftime.

That came during a stretch in which Smith – despite forcing a pass into coverage that was tipped and intercepted – completed 11 of 14 passes in the first half. But he was just 5 of 15 in the second half as the offense relied on the pounding runs of Frank Gore, who finished with a game-high 108 yards rushing to become the first rookie in 15 years to finish as San Francisco's season leader in rushing.

"I think that we have really established ourselves as a physical offense, and it has been noticeable in the last three games," said center Eric Heitmann, who again had a strong game in the trenches. "We have been aggressive in the run and in the pass, and it feels great to be able to take this physical approach of the offense into next season."

But that wasn't the case at the start Sunday. The 49ers opened the game classically terrible on offense against a defense ranked 31st in the NFL. It was so bad, the entire sequence is worthy of mention.

The succession of follies went like this:

On San Francisco's first offensive play, right tackle Kwame Harris was penalized for illegal use of hands. After two three-yard runs by Maurice Hicks (who finished with 64 yards on 18 carries), Smith was sacked for a six-yard loss on third down. Andy Lee's ensuing punt went only 18 yards, setting up the Texans to begin their second drive at the San Francisco 21.

Hold on. It gets worse.

After the Texans turned that advantageous field position into a field goal for the game's first score, Hicks again picked up six yards on the first two plays of San Francisco's next possession, and Smith was sacked again on third down by Babin. This time, Lee's punt was blocked, and Houston began the next drive at the San Francisco 17. The Texans went the short distance for a touchdown and 10-0 lead.

San Francisco's next offensive drive? A three-and-out. The next drive after that? A penalty on a punt return pushed the 49ers back to the San Francisco 5. Hicks finally busted loose for a 13-yard gain to give the 49ers their only first down of the first quarter. But that drive ended with Smith's interception, and San Francisco then went three-and-out again on its fifth possession.

But the 49ers turned it around the rest of the way to ensure they wouldn't finish with the NFL's worst record for the second consecutive season.

Barely, that is.

"We're certainly not where we want to be, but to win in the trenches like we have the past couple of weeks says a lot about the attitude we have," Nolan said. "Today was certainly a good win and getting back-to-back wins was important. The identity of our football team has begun to take hold these last few weeks of our season, and we will only get better."

If nothing else, prevailing over the sorry Texans was a step in that direction.


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