49ers bounce Broncos to finish 2006 with bang

The 49ers won't be going to the playoffs this season, but neither will the Denver Broncos, and that sends San Francisco into the 2007 offseason on a majestic Mile High high. The Niners pulled a thrilling stunner Sunday to finish their season on the up-and-up, rallying from a 13-point deficit to push around the Broncos in a 26-23 overtime victory that knocked Denver from the AFC's postseason derby.

And, at the finish of a year of definite progress for San Francisco, it left the 49ers only one game out of the NFC playoffs with a 7-9 record that matches the team's best since the Niners last made the playoffs in 2002.

The 49ers, after falling behind 13-0 late in the second quarter, absolutely dominated the second half, scoring 17 unanswered points to take the lead and then building a 23-16 advantage with 6:14 to play in the fourth quarter.

But the Broncos, with rookie quarterback Jay Cutler leading the way, drove 80 yards for their only offensive touchdown of the day to send the game into overtime and keep their playoff hopes alive. After Kansas City beat Jacksonville 35-30 earlier in the day, the Broncos had to win to secure the top wild-card berth in the AFC playoffs.

But the 49ers were having none of that. Just as it had done most of the game, the resilient San Francisco defense denied Denver twice in overtime. And then, behind playmakers Frank Gore and Alex Smith, the 49ers drove to the Denver 18-yard line to set up kicker Joe Nedney for a 36-yard field goal attempt with just two minutes remaining in the extra period.

Nedney drilled it inside the right upright, and the 49ers had their biggest upset victory of the season and their first back-to-back road victories in four seasons.

"That's such a great feeling," Nedney said, "to be in a place like this that's supposed to be one of the loudest places in the league, and to kick a field goal and watch 70,000 people shut up and go home, what a great feeling!"

It definitely was a great feeling for the 49ers, who truly deserved the victory after a second-half comeback in which they simply punched the Broncos into submission and never stopped coming at them until Denver's playoff hopes had been extinguished.

Like several 49ers, Nedney came up big in the victory, making two 46-yard field goals and a 29-yarder before his game winner, of which Nedney - and the rest of the Niners - couldn't stop talking about long after the game.

"Once we got inside the 40-yard line, I knew it was going to end up on me," Nedney said. "You've done it a million times in practice, and we'd had a lot of opportunities in the game. Just one more time, baby, one more time. And there you go. We win. They lose. We go home … and they go home.

It was a considerably uplifting way for the 49ers to end their season, coming into Denver as 10-point underdogs and then playing some of their best football of the year after halftime.

"We talked about finishing what we started at the beginning of the week, and that was to finish what we started this season," said 49ers coach Mike Nolan, whose team was eliminated from playoff contention during last week's home loss to Arizona. "I thought the guys did an outstanding job of that."

"And also, we wanted to start of 2007 the right way," Nolan continued. "So those who thought we didn't have anything to play for, they found out something else. It really reveals the character of this football team. I'm extremely pleased with the way they played today. It's very gratifying."

Running back Frank Gore no doubt feels the same way after completing his spectacular second NFL season with a game-high 153 yards rushing on 31 carries. Gore kept the offense churning after a slow start to win the NFC rushing title and set a new franchise record with 1,695 yards rushing this season.

Gore also had 32 yards receiving, making him the 53rd player in NFL history to finish a season with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Gore finished the season with 2,180 yards rushing and receiving to set another franchise record.

But San Francisco's shining star tailback wasn't the only player to come through for the 49ers when they needed it.

After a rough start - which included Champ Bailey's 70-yard return of an interception that gave Denver a 13-0 lead with two minutes to play before halftime - quarterback Alex Smith made several good decisions and strong passes to keep plays alive and the offense moving throughout the second half. Smith had 134 of his 194 yards passing after halftime.

And then there were defensive stars such as cornerback Walt Harris, who had two interceptions and recovered a fumble to account for all three Denver turnovers.

Harris' second interception - giving him the NFC title with eight interceptions this season - was the game-turning play. It came a few minutes after the 49ers took the second-half kickoff and drove 76 yards for a touchdown, a march that culminated with fullback Moran Norris' 32-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown that cut Denver's lead to 13-10.

With Cutler harassed by an inside blitz from linebacker Brandon Moore on third-and-17, Harris stepped in front of Cutler's pass in the left flat and returned it 28 yards for a stunning touchdown and 17-13 lead. The 49ers never would trail again.

"My eyes got real big," Harris said. "I dropped into coverage and kind of read (Cutler)'s eyes and knew where he was trying to get the ball. I just had to step in front of it, and after that, it was six."

It was the signature play of a hard-hitting, physical effort by a San Francisco defense that ended the season with an inspired performance. Moore led the way with 10 tackles, but he was one of about a dozen San Francisco defenders to make contributions during the afternoon.

An afternoon that quickly turned to darkness for the Broncos, while at the same time suggesting a bright future for the upstart 49ers.

"When you play physical and all that, you are going to set the tone in a football game and give yourself a better opportunity to win," Nolan said. "This game reinforces a lot of the good things we've got going on here, and this win means an awful lot to that. I think this says a lot about the direction we are going in and the kind of guys we have on this team."

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