49ers climb Hill, bury Bengals

This is what it was supposed to look like this season. The 49ers offense, that is. Heck, this entire 49ers team. Clamping down on defense. Moving the ball and burning time on offense. Frank Gore getting his carries and bulling over defenders. With a QB named Shaun Hill leading the way Saturday, the 49ers never have looked better in 2007 than during their 20-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Finally putting it together for the first time this season in all three phases of the game, this NFL Network-televised spectacle turned into a Saturday Night Special for the 49ers, who ran their record to 4-10 with just their second win in 12 games.

So where has this team been all season? The 49ers finally found what it takes to play a relatively complete game in a contest that really shouldn't have been as close as the final score.

"It's better late than never," said 49ers' veteran Darrell Jackson, who finally emerged as the go-to wide receiver he was supposed to be this year with game-high totals of eight receptions for 86 yards.

"Sometimes things don't go right, and it takes a while to catch on, and it takes a while to develop it," Jackson continued. "We just went out and relaxed and played and let our abilities take over. We did a good job all the way around."

And leading the way was Hill, the erstwhile third-string quarterback who until last week had never taken a meaningful snap in his six-year NFL career.

But just as he did in the second half of last week's loss to Minnesota after replacing injured Trent Dilfer, Hill continued to make up for lost time and make everybody at Monster Park – and probably everybody watching outside the stadium, too – wonder why the 49ers didn't go to him a little bit earlier this season.

Hill came out firing and never stopped, hitting his targets at an exceptional 75 percent rate with his quick releases and pinpoint throws. Hill had the best game by a 49ers quarterback this season, finishing 21 of 28 for 197 yards passing, including a crisp 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis at the end of the second quarter that gave the 49ers a lead they never would relinquish.

That scoring drive typified the night for the play-making Hill and also a resurgent San Francisco offense that produced 337 yards to out-gain a Cincinnati attack ranked that seventh in the NFL entering the game.

After Cincinnati had taken its only lead at 10-7 on a well-executed 52-yard touchdown bomb from quarterback Carson Palmer to receiver Chris Henry, the 49ers came charging back to grab their first halftime lead of the season.

Hill was 5 of 6 – his only incompletion was a spiked pass to stop the clock – on a well designed 10-play, 76-yard drive that mixed in runs by Gore and culminated with Hill and Davis beating the Cincinnati defense on a third-down play with just 14 seconds left in the second quarter.

That looked like several drives assembled by Hill on Saturday as the 49ers converted on 9 of 15 third-down opportunities while controlling the ball for 36 minutes – a drastic change for an offense that entered the game ranked last in the NFL in time of possession. San Francisco finished the evening with four drives of 10 plays or more and another drive that went nine plays.

"Tonight, it just came down to successful execution of our game plan," said Hill, coming up with a simple explanation for his sudden success after toiling on the sidelines throughout his career. "We haven't always been able to do that this season, so accomplishing that tonight was huge. The defense continued to do a great job tonight, and fortunately, we were able to step up our level of performance."

Hill also made plays with his feet, keeping a few plays alive by avoiding defenders and rushing for 12 yards, a total that included a key 12-yard run on third-and-9 to keep a drive moving and also a beautiful three-yard bootleg in which Hill fooled the Cincinnati defense and coasted into the end zone for the first score of the game and first touchdown of his career. That completed a 13-play, 76-yard drive during which Hill was 7 of 8 through the air.

Also helping the offense click was Gore, who rumbled for a season-high 138 yards rushing on 29 carries and looked every bit like the Pro Bowl starter who set a franchise record with a NFC-leading 1,695 yards rushing last season.

"The passing game was going, and we just kind of went back to our old style," Gore said. "We were just clicking, we didn't make any mistakes or turnovers, and that's the type of football we can play."

Said Hill: "Our offense was in rhythm tonight. We just went out there and trusted each other, simple as that."

Despite controlling the game throughout the second half – San Francisco's 20-10 advantage entering the fourth quarter was its largest lead of season – the 49ers had to put some trust in their defense to get the job done in the end.

That was due, in part, to a questionable decision with six minutes to play that opened the door for a Cincinnati comeback.

After the second of Shayne Graham's two field goals cut San Francisco's lead to seven points early in the fourth quarter, the 49ers answered with a nine-play drive that took them to the Cincinnati 24-yard line.
It was there they faced a fourth-and-2 situation with 6:21 remaining, which seemed like an ideal spot to send in Joe Nedney for a 41-yard field goal that would make it a two-possession game again. Nedney had made field goals from 29 and 38 yards earlier in the evening.

But coach Mike Nolan decided to go for the first down. Hill threw incomplete to rookie receiver Jason Hill, and Cincinnati suddenly had new life – and the football – trailing by just a touchdown.

"I thought we had great momentum on offense," Nolan said. "Our offense was moving the ball. Our guys were confident and were playing well and you have to play into that."

Instead, Cincinnati was quickly going the other way and playing for overtime.

The Bengals, converting on fourth down near midfield, drove to the San Francisco 24, where they faced another fourth-down situation with three minutes to play.

This time, instead of going just for the first down, the Bengals went for it all. Receiver Chad Johnson got a step on cornerback Nate Clements, and Palmer put a pretty pass right on his hands in the end zone. But Johnson, with Clements at his shoulder, bobbled the ball as he went out of bounds and hit the ground. The pass was ruled incomplete.

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis challenged the call, but the incompletion was upheld after a review by officials. With Cincinnati burning its timeouts, Gore burst up the middle for a 10-yard gain on third-and-9 at the two-minute warning, and the 49ers ran out the clock to record a very satisfying win in a season that has been filled with disappointing losses.

"We just played our style of football tonight, simple as that," Clements said. "We put it together offensively, defensively and special teams."

Added rookie linebacker Patrick Willis, who led the 49ers with six tackles and spearheaded a defense that limited Cincinnati to 61 yards rushing, "Things haven't gone the way we wanted this season. But now it's about finishing strong for our organization, finishing strong for us to give us motivation going into the offseason, and not quitting, because that's not what we do here."

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