Back to basic badness for 49ers

It was back to the basics Sunday for the 49ers. And the basic fact of this fallen season is the 2007 49ers are a lousy football team. Undone by six turnovers and six sacks of QB Trent Dilfer, the Niners sunk to yet another new low, falling 31-14 to the reeling Carolina Panthers to assure San Francisco of a fifth consecutive losing season for the first time in the franchise's 62-year history.

For a brief synopsis, that pretty much covers it on another lost afternoon for the floundering 49ers, who lost for the ninth time in 10 games with plenty of bad to go around in every phase of the game.

This time, even San Francisco's usually reliable special teams let down the 49ers, and the result was the momentum-changer the Panthers needed to take back command of the game and cruise to a victory that snapped their five-game losing streak and gave Carolina its first victory in 377 days on its home field at Bank of America Stadium.

Trailing 17-0 at halftime after committing three first-half turnovers that the Panthers turned into 10 points - seven of them coming on nickel back Richard Marshall's 67-yard touchdown return of the first of Dilfer's four interceptions - the 49ers came roaring back with two quick touchdowns in the first seven minutes of the third quarter.

Then, the overworked San Francisco defense - which had set up the 49ers' first touchdown with safety Michael Lewis' interception - forced a second consecutive three-and-out by the Carolina offense.

Trailing just 17-14 now, the 49ers had a tidal wave of momentum on their side and seemed poised to not only get back in the game, but take control of it against a Carolina team that now suddenly was back on its heels.

But that all changed on the next play.

Punt returner Michael Lewis camped underneath Jason Baker's ensuing 51-yard punt, only to see it slip through his hands and bounce free on the turf. Even though Mark Roman and Donald Strickland both had a shot at the live ball, the Panthers recovered the muff at the San Francisco 11, and the 49ers' soaring momentum had been completely deflated.

The Panthers punched it into the end zone four plays later, and San Francisco's small window of making a game of it again had completely vanished.

"We came out at halftime, we were inspired to play some good ball and it showed when we got it to 17-14," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "But then we fumbled the punt, they got the ball at the 11, they stuck it in, and it took some of the wind out of our sails, I guess you could say."

You can say that again. Make that, all the wind out of San Francisco's sails as the course had been set toward another lopsided defeat.

The 49ers never recovered, and the remainder of the game was spent watching San Francisco misfire on offense and spend way too much time on the field defensively.

In the end, Carolina had controlled the football for more than 38 minutes while the San Francisco offense was on the field for fewer than 22 minutes. That's no way to win a football game, but it's something the 49ers are getting used to in this season of owning the NFL's worst offense.

After a surprising breakout performance in last week's overtime victory at Arizona, it was back to the usual dismal showing for the San Francisco offense, which finished with just 195 total yards - the sixth time in 12 games this year the 3-9 49ers had been limited to 195 yards or fewer.

Dilfer, after coming on strong the past few weeks, made some nice throws during San Francisco's mini-comeback - including touchdown passes of 20 yards to Arnaz Battle and 21 yards to Delanie Walker just three minutes apart - but he and the offense unraveled as Carolina turned up the heat.

Two of San Francisco's final four drives ended with interceptions by Dilfer, who was just 14 of 29 for 171 yards passing. He also was sacked six times by a 25th-ranked Carolina defense that entered the game last in the NFL with just 10 sacks in its first 11 games.

Yes, that's how bad it was.

"(Protection) was a problem today," Nolan said. "Trent's a hell of a competitor, and I believe he was just trying to make something happen. And sometimes when you do that, it's something that's not good, and that's what happened today. I'm sure he would like to have some of those throws back. But again, he's doing it out of the effort to try and get us on track and create a spark. And it backfired."

Just like this entire season has backfired on the 49ers, with Sunday's game the latest vivid example of the free-fall.

And it guaranteed San Francisco a fifth consecutive losing season, something that never has happened before. The 49ers had four consecutive losing seasons between 1977-1980, but never five in a row.

Somehow, that seems to fit in with what this disappointing season has become.

"We were all fired up because we won last week's game and we came out with expectations of winning this game and felt like we were coming together," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "But there's some things we still need to work on. I'm not sure what's going on."

Which is a feeling the 49ers have had much too often this season and - after being hit by a wave of hope last week - is one they're saddled with again as they straggle into the final quarter of a season gone bad.

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