49ers must learn to put away opponents

Do the 49ers lack killer instinct? It's something their star receiver, Terrell Owens, has been trying to tell everybody since the middle of last season. But now that Owens isn't talking with the media, some of his teammates are lending support to the same theory. And anybody who has watched the Niners fade at the end of games lately has to be wondering exactly the same thing.

The Niners were marvelous in the first two quarters last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, playing as good a half of football as has been seen in San Francisco in years. The Niners were forcing turnovers on defense and producing points rapidly on offense, building a 24-0 lead that became 31-7 at halftime. The game was over at intermission.

Or, at least, it should have been. But the Cardinals twice cut that 24-point halftime lead to 10 points in the second half. And they were marching down the field to get within three points with plenty of time still remaining in the fourth quarter before Ronnie Heard's third interception of the afternoon deep in San Francisco territory sealed the deal in a 38-28 win.

"We didn't have the killer instinct, and we need to have that to put teams away," quarterback Jeff Garcia said.

Owens, the outspoken All-Pro, started that lament last October when the Niners blew a key NFC game at Chicago by not finishing in the fourth quarter after a strong start. He continued it earlier this season when the Niners got out of the gate slowly on offense. He hasn't spoken the past two weeks, but the numbers clearly support what he has been saying all along.

The Niners mounted just one good scoring drive after the opening minute of the second quarter against the Cardinals, while the defense yielded 420 points and three second-half touchdowns. A week earlier at New Orleans, the Niners saw a 24-13 lead entering the fourth quarter vanish when the Saints scored 22 points in the final 13 minutes. New Orleans rolled to 422 yards of offense, the most allowed by the Niners this season.

The 49ers have outscored opponents 115-53 in the first half this season, but they've been outscored 91-65 in the second half, allowing 57 points in the fourth quarter.

The Niners need to learn how to finish, because opponents are taking advantage when San Francisco fails to do that. Opponents have converted 54.8 percent of their third-down conversions against the 49ers defense - which ranks San Francisco last in the league in stopping teams on third down. In the last three weeks, Seattle, New Orleans and Arizona were a remarkable 29 of 42 on third downs.

That the 49ers went 2-1 in those games is a testament that they're a quality team, despite their deficiencies. But that's mainly because a revamped offense averaged 31 points in those games - scoring the bulk of those points early and then holding on.

"I think it's a matter of making plays when you have an opportunity to do so," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said in response to the latest inquiry about his team's lack of "killer instinct."

The Niners are great about making plays when a game is fresh. Now they must extend that effort to burying teams while they're down and not leaving an opening that might allow opponents to crawl out.

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