49ers fall apart during fourth-quarter fiasco

Trailing by nine points entering the fourth quarter Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles had the 49ers right where they wanted them. Just when it appeared San Francisco was about to get its season back on track, the Niners disintegrated and went crashing right off the rail as the Eagles scored 23 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to leave Candlestick Park with a stunning 40-26 victory.

Stunning might be putting it lightly. Staggering is more like it. The 49ers had momentum on their side and were seemingly in command, having scored 20 unanswered points of their own to take a 26-17 lead into the final period. San Francisco still held that advantage inside of 12 minutes to play.

But with the 49ers these days, no lead is safe. San Francisco kept giving the Eagles opportunity after opportunity to take the game away, and that's just what the Eagles ended up doing.

Quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan threw two interceptions and lost a fumble on three consecutive drives in the final 6:23 of play, which not only aborted any San Francisco hopes of a comeback, but also allowed the Eagles to pile on additional points at the end that turned a seesaw contest into a convincing, two-touchdown win.

"I'm just frustrated that we're not finishing," 49ers running back Frank Gore said. "If we had finished today, we'd win the game."

The Eagles were the finishers Sunday, and they were escorted to the finish line by a complete fourth-quarter implosion by a San Francisco team that not only doesn't know how to finish, but also is displaying how not to win while coming from ahead to lose.

But it looked for a long while like this one would be different for the 49ers, who got the kind of big play at the end of the first half that not only could turn around a game, but also could turn around a season.

The Eagles, who rolled to 224 of their 383 offensive yards in the first half, lined up for a 54-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter that could have given Philadelphia a 20-9 halftime lead that would have been indicative of its dominance during the first two quarters.

But Ray McDonald broke through the line and blocked David Akers' kick, sending the ball bouncing backwards, where Donald Strickland grabbed it in the air and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown and a potential 10-point swing to end the first half.

"The ball bounced my way and I took it the distance," Strickland said. "It was definitely a momentum changer, gave us a boost going into halftime and definitely built up the morale of the team."

Did it ever. The 49ers came out in the third quarter, took the second-half kickoff and moved 78 yards down the field in six quick plays for a go-ahead touchdown, with Gore (101 yards rushing on 19 attempts) rumbling over the right side from six yards out for the score.

San Francisco then assembled a 77-yard drive on its next possession that ended in Joe Nedney's fourth field goal to give the 49ers a 26-17 lead to take into the final quarter.

"The way we came out in the second half, I thought we were going to win the game," McDonald said. "To lose like that in the fourth quarter … That just shouldn't happen."

But it did.

The Niners got a big play at the end of the third quarter from linebacker Takeo Spikes, who intercepted McNabb at the San Francisco 15 to preserve the 49ers' lead and give them back the ball heading into the decisive final period.
It was just about the last thing to go right for the 49ers.

The San Francisco offense quickly went three-and-out, and after a poor punt by Andy Lee, the Eagles went 38 yards in five plays for a touchdown that brought them within 26-24. Another three-and-out and another pedestrian punt by Lee left the Eagles with another short field, and they turned that into a 38-yard field goal by Akers to retake the lead at 27-26 with 7:50 remaining to play.

"We just didn't make plays as a defense," defensive end Justin Smith said. "Third downs are a problem. We have to get them in third-and-long so they don't have their whole playbook to mess with. That's on us. We just didn't make the plays."

A feeble finish for the 49ers began with coach Mike Nolan challenging Akers' field goal, which began hooking as it reached the right goal post and just may have gone wide as it crossed over it. But it was too close to call, and officials upheld the field goal after viewing replays, costing the 49ers a timeout.

Three plays later – after the 49ers attempted a tight-end reverse to Delanie Walker that lost 10 yards – O'Sullivan rolled right to try to pass the 49ers out of a third-and-18 hole. But his throw back over the middle was intercepted by safety Quintin Mikell, who returned the pick 41 yards to the San Francisco 7. That set up a 25-yard Akers field goal that pushed Philly's lead to 30-26.

On third-and-3 on San Francisco's next possession, Trent Cole raced around the blind side and knocked the ball out of O'Sullivan's hands for a fumble that led to a 28-yard Akers field goal that put the Eagles in control at 33-26 with 1:14 to play.

But the 49ers still had time for one final shot at overtime. And then they didn't.

After O'Sullivan hit Josh Morgan for 25 yards to midfield, the quarterback attempted to hit Arnaz Battle on a hot read out of the right slot two plays later. Only problem was, Battle kept going deep with his route. Defensive end Juqua Parker jumped into the passing lane and intercepted the throw, then took back the pick 55 yards for a game-clinching touchdown with 38 seconds remaining.

When asked what happened on his interceptions, O'Sullivan – who now has thrown at least two interceptions in each of the past three games – could do little more than answer with a bewildered gaze.

"I don't know if I have a good answer for you," O'Sullivan replied. "I'm trying to execute the offense. If the ball wasn't supposed to be thrown there and I misread it, and (the intended receiver) was open, then it was my fault."

There was plenty of blame to go around for the 49ers falling apart in the final quarter and extending their losing streak to three games. After Arizona defeated Dallas in overtime later Sunday afternoon, the Niners (2-4) are now two games behind the first-place Cardinals (4-2) in the NFC West.

"Naturally, there's a lot of things to learn from this game," Nolan said. "We just became less effective (in the final quarter), I guess. The defense had their problems as well, so I wouldn't put it all on one (thing).

"I thought we were moving the ball well the entire game. I thought we had a good mix. I thought we ran the ball well. I thought we passed it. I thought we kept them off balance. I thought it was a good plan. Naturally, a couple of turnovers there at the end and a bad punt gave way for them to get some points. So, we've got to play better as a team. It takes a team to win a game, especially against a good football team like Philadelphia."

And, after the latest debacle – the third consecutive game in which San Francisco has allowed 30 or more points – it's pretty clear the 49ers just aren't a very good football team right now after giving away at the end a game they had in control and desperately needed to win.

"It's a tough loss and it hurts," Spikes said. "The reason why it hurts so bad is because I know what we can be. But I also know what we are. Nobody wants to be in the position of 2-4, and that's where we are right now."

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