Philly K.O.'s 49ers again

Too bad it's the Philadelphia Eagles that the 49ers have to use as their early-season measuring stick. Facing the NFC East power in September for the second year in a row after a confidence-building victory over a divisional rival, the 49ers once again were put in their place swiftly and emphatically Sunday by a superior team that trampled them amid similar conditions last season.

This trampling looked a bit different and was a little more aesthetically pleasing to the 49ers than last year's debacle in Philadelphia, but not by much.

Hitting for big plays throughout the afternoon on both offense and defense, the Eagles rolled to a 38-24 victory that was a lopsided 31-3 margin midway through the third quarter after Philadelphia defensive tackle Mike Patterson picked up a Frank Gore fumble and rumbled 98 yards for a touchdown on the game's signature play.

That's the way it was all day for the 49ers. Whenever San Francisco tried to punch back, the Eagles answered with a knockout blow.

"It sucks to lose like this," said 49ers safety Mike Adams, whose problems trying to bring down Philadelphia ball carriers typified San Francisco's defensive struggles against the NFL's top-ranked offense.

"We just broke down mentally," Adams continued. "We weren't really polished, making a couple of mistakes here, a couple of missed tackles there, and that can happen. But when it happens against a great team like Philadelphia, they will capitalize off that."

The Eagles, who blasted the 49ers 42-3 in Week 2 last year while piling up a franchise-record 583 yards of offense, took the early initiative and then spent the rest of the afternoon attempting to bury their overmatched opponent.

Quarterback Donovan McNabb connected with receiver Reggie Brown for a 50-yard gain on the game's first play from scrimmage - a flea-flicker in which a wide-open Brown would have scored had he not had to wait for the pass to arrive - and the Eagles were ahead 7-0 three plays later before the game was even two minutes old.

That set the tone for a first half after which the Eagles held a 24-3 edge on the scoreboard and a 337-110 advantage in total yards. A big chunk of Philadelphia's yards came on a 71-yard touchdown burst by Brian Westbrook, who tossed away Adams with a straight arm on his way down the sideline into the end zone.

That might have been the first definitive statement that the 49ers were in way over their heads. But several more would follow.

"We made far too many errors to overcome, both offensively and defensively," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "When you make mistakes and you're a young team, it looks like it looked."

Nolan made a point to say that this loss didn't look nearly as ugly to him as last year's catastrophe in Philadelphia, and for a brief shimmering moment Sunday, it looked like the 49ers were at least on their way to sort of getting back in the game.

After stopping the Eagles with a three-and-out on their first series of the second half, the 49ers swiftly drove to a first down at the Philadelphia 1-yard line.

But that's when the Eagles showed who really was boss. They stopped Gore for no gain on first down, then stopped him for no gain again on second down. On third down, safety Brian Dawkins flew in from the right side and stuck Gore in the gut, forcing not only a fumble but also the end of Gore's afternoon with an abdominal injury that kept him out the rest of the game.

The ball appeared lost in a mass of bodies, but Patterson found it at the 2 and - when most players were standing around, figuring the play already was dead - picked it up and started running.

Actually, it looked more like waddling, but the stocky 292-pounder had few 49ers in pursuit as he gained steam and a convoy of blockers in front of him. Only Smith, who kept getting pushed downfield by Philadelphia players, was between Patterson and a touchdown. Smith tried to get in Patterson's way at about the 10-yard line, but Patterson cut back behind a block and trotted into the end zone to complete the longest fumble return in Eagles history and the sixth-longest in NFL history.

"That hurts," Smith said. "It's a 14-point turnaround in one play. Fourteen points makes a big difference considering the final score."

The 49ers challenged the play, contending that Patterson was touched down before he began his long jaunt, but to no avail. With the 49ers on the verge of making it a 24-10 game, the Eagles suddenly led 31-3, and it was getting ugly.

"They probably thought I was down," Patterson said. "The only thing I know is, I didn't hear a whistle. As soon as I picked it up, I saw the ref and kept on running."

The 49ers were finished, on their way to getting embarrassed again by the Eagles. Or were they?

On the next play from scrimmage, Smith unloaded a bomb to Bryan Gilmore, who had slipped behind the Philadelphia defense, for a 75-yard play that set up Michael Robinson's 1-yard touchdown plunge.

After a quick three-and-out by the Eagles, Robinson was in the end zone again on a 1-yard touchdown run to begin the fourth quarter. With 14:57 remaining to play, the 49ers were back within 31-17 and had loads of momentum on their side.

But the Eagles weren't having any of that. Like good teams they do, they came right back.

McNabb connected with Brown on a key third-down play to keep the next Philadelphia drive alive. On the play after that, the Eagles worked a pick play that allowed backup tight end Matt Schobel to shake loose for a 60-yard gain that set up Westbrook's third touchdown to restore Philly's 21-point cushion.

That settled the issue with more than 12 minutes still remaining, but Smith and the 49ers kept coming until the game's final play.

Taking some hellacious hits as the Eagles starting coming after him relentlessly, Smith fumbled on the next drive, losing a turnover for the first time in three games this season. But he got right back up, and eventually led the 49ers on 16-play, 76-yard scoring drive that culminated with his 15-yard touchdown pass to Eric Johnson with six seconds left.

That completed another respectable afternoon for Smith, who had career-highs of 27 completions in 46 attempts for 293 yards. He still has yet to throw an interception after tossing 11 in seven starts last year. Smith also displayed a new dimension in his game, rushing for a career-high 39 yards, including a career-best 22-yard gain that led to San Francisco's first score on a 48-yard Joe Nedney field goal.

"We're a never-quit football team," said Nolan, pointing out one of the two positive things he gained from the game. "We come out in the second half and continue to fight and compete until the very end. And we've got a tough quarterback. I don't know if there are too many guys in the league who could take that kind of beating and keep coming back."

For what it's worth, Nolan could have said the same sort of thing about his team.

Usually volatile receiver Antonio Bryant, who had a 53-yard reception nullified by penalty while being limited to four receptions for 36 yards, tried to offer some perspective when asked if Sunday's performance was a setback in the progress of the 49ers.

"I don't think it's necessarily a step back," he said. "I think it's just a regroup. You can't take anything away from Philadelphia. That's a well-groomed team. There's still a lot of things we need grooming on."

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