Jeff Garcia started slowly this season but clearly is returning to top form. He was sharp and crisp while making very few mistakes against a Seattle defense that came at him ferociously. This was Garcia's smartest and smoothest game of the season as he once again on a regular basis made the instinctive decisions that have made him a two-time Pro Bowler. He missed on a few throws, but his 16-for-29, 202-yard, two-touchdown evening was a nice night of work, particularly when you throw in his season-high 48 yards rushing on seven carries - two of which were game-ending kneel-downs - that completely discombobulated the Seattle defense. Bottom line: Surging Garcia has second consecutive game with passer rating above 100.
Last week, Kevan Barlow handed the spotlight to Garrison Hearst. This week, Hearst handed it back to Barlow. All the ABC Monday night broadcasters could do was rave about Barlow every time he touched the football. It was fitting praise. Barlow put all of his considerable talents on display before the national television audience - speed, power, shiftiness and agility - while rushing for 68 yards on 12 carries, including the touchdown that put the Niners back ahead in the third quarter. Hearst wasn't bad, either, with 41 yards rushing and 33 receiving. Fullback Fred Beasley had some outstanding blocks both leading the run and protecting for the pass. Bottom line: Barlow-Hearst tandem continues to be a bear with Beasley blocking before them.
So that's who Tai Streets is. Streets stepped in for an injured J.J. Stokes and made his presence felt immediately with two receptions during San Francisco's first three offensive plays. He later had a 35-yard catch and finished with four receptions for 66 yards. That was just what the Niners needed with Stokes out, and Cedrick Wilson also made a contribution with two nine-yard receptions, including a tough grab on third down to keep a drive moving. This help from other areas allowed the star of the unit - Terrell Owens - to get loose for six receptions for 84 yards and his first two-touchdown game of the season. Bottom line: Big efforts from Streets and Wilson were big boon to unit.
There were a few problems in pass protection, and rookie Eric Heitmann got ran over a few times by Chad Eaton, but this strong unit allowed Garcia time to work in the pocket, and once again wore down another determined opponent in the second half. This line was gouging holes in the Seattle run defense by the fourth quarter. Bottom line: Unit again does its part in effective offensive performance.
Unit was stout against the run and put decent pressure on Seattle quarterback Trent Dilfer at times with Andre Carter recording a sack. But Dilfer had too much time to throw most of the night. Unit came through when it counted, however, when Chike Okeafor (two passed defensed) deflected a Dilfer pass that was intercepted, a play that led to the game-winning touchdown. Bottom line: Unit has had better games, but made big plays that led to victory.
Derek Smith got caught out of position and was slow to get to his spots a few times. But he also was all over the field, making a team-high 10 tackles. The Niners will take the former if they can get the latter. Julian Peterson and Jeff Ulbrich combined for 10 tackles, but they also had problems sticking with tight ends and running backs in pass coverage. Bottom line: Unit solid against the run, suspect against the pass.
Zack Bronson was having another impact game with three tackles, an interception and a pass defensed before he broke his foot in the second quarter. The Niners will miss him, but Ronnie Heard played adequately in his place. Tony Parrish was solid but did not have a standout game for the first time this season. Cornerbacks Jason Webster and Ahmed Plummer both were good in coverage and each contributed nine tackles, with Plummer recording his first interception of the season with a nice diving grab that set up the game-winning touchdown. Bottom line: Solid performance minimized by loss of Bronson.
Bobby Engram's 61-yard punt return for a touchdown was a glaring mistake for coverage units that have been awfully good this season. That play almost ended up costing the Niners the game. Coverage was good on kickoffs, however, and there were some nice individual hits. The Niners' return game continues to be close to nonexistent. Kicker Jose Cortez and punter Jason Baker had little impact on the game. Bottom line: Biggest mistake of season for these units ultimately didn't cost the Niners.
The Niners had another sound game plan, and this time used more pressure - and press coverage - on defense. Team came out strong in big national game surrounded by considerable hype, then finished strong after losing all of an early 10-point lead. Niners trailed entering the fourth quarter, but then dominated down the stretch when it counted, sticking with what worked to wear out the Seahawks and take another big - albeit early - step toward an NFC West crown. There was some excellent play-calling, such as Garcia's bootleg on the game's final drive. Bottom line: Niners must win games like these to be a serious title contender, and that's just what they did.