Niners still have time to rise again in NFC

You want to chastise the 49ers for blowing that big opportunity in the Big Easy, dig at them with the disgust they deserve for letting an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and a stranglehold on NFC supremacy vanish in the wind of a place that doesn't even have any. But now that it's a new week with a new challenge, you have to marvel at the way they so simply move on. And they do so not with disappointment, but with a determination that their season still is full of promise.

You want to chastise the 49ers for blowing that big opportunity in the Big Easy, dig at them with the disgust they deserve for letting an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and a stranglehold on NFC supremacy vanish in the wind of a place that doesn't even have any. But now that it's a new week with a new challenge, you have to marvel at the way they so simply move on. And they do so not with disappointment, but with a determination that their season still is full of promise.

And now that we think about it, this is just the same point they were at last year, and things turned out pretty well then.

After blowing a huge lead in the fourth quarter, on the road, against a conference opponent riding high in first place of another division, the 49ers are 4-2 as they enter the heart of their schedule. They were 4-2 last year after blowing a huge lead at Chicago to the riding-high, first-place Bears, who used that victory as a springboard to an NFC Central title and first-round playoff bye.

The Niners didn't do so poorly after that, either, using the angst felt from that collapse as motivation to not let it happen again. They won their next five games to establish themselves again as a true playoff contender after two years of rebuilding.

When SFI pointed out these parallels to Steve Mariucci this week, the Niners coach said, "I hadn't thought of that. Sometimes, a tough loss against a good opponent can bring you together a little bit. Because this team knows how close we were to beating a real good team. Now, close doesn't get it done. And we didn't get it done. But we know if we play like we can, we can beat anybody."

Added tackle Derrick Deese, "We know we have a good team. We have no doubt this team can beat anybody on a given day."

And it's true. The Niners were destroying the Saints for three quarters - in their Superdome. And right now, New Orleans is definitively the team to beat in the NFC, having already whipped the other two teams with the NFC's best records - 6-1 Green Bay and 5-2 Tampa Bay - along with 2001 AFC runnerup Pittsburgh.

Of course, the Saints destroyed the Niners in the quarter that counted, dropping 22 points on San Francisco in the final 15 minutes. And we know what you're thinking and saying: With a defense that plays like that during crunch time of a huge game, how can anybody take the Niners as anything more than get-close heartbreakers who are good but not good enough to go all the way?

That defense will get better as its health gets better. It has been fighting injuries all season, and a key component will return shortly in Jamie Winborn. Losing free safety Zack Bronson proved to be a killer against the Saints, but it forced Ronnie Heard to learn the hard way and he'll be better for it.

But that efficient, big-play offense looks ready to take off now, and that was even with Terrell Owens held relatively in check. You just know he's ready to explode with some monster games now that football weather is approaching. Maybe even this week.

And this week, the Arizona Cardinals come to town. Don't laugh. With a victory, the Cards can leave with sole possession of first place in the NFC West. So there's no time to worry about spilled chances in Louisiana. But get back on track against the Cardinals here, and the Niners can go chasing big game in the NFC again. Even after that despicable New Orleans loss, the Niners themselves still belong in that category.

"We have to take care of our own business," Mariucci said. "Every week this team knows it's going to have a big game. We have to win enough games and stay out in front of everybody. I think our team enjoys being in first place. And we need to prove that we want to stay there. And that's the standard that we're setting up, to play like a first-place team and be there and win this division back. That's the mindset."

First thing's first. But in the back of their minds, the Niners know they'll be fighting for more than just an NFC West title somewhere down the road. They've just been there against the Saints, and know they are good enough to go back again.


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