Breaking down the game

Analyzing and categorizing the 49ers' 31-27 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday:

QUARTERBACKS

With Jeff Garcia on your side, you always have a chance. The Niners quarterback stood up to a tough Dallas defense that came after him all day and never blinked, particularly when it counted. He won the game for the 49ers with his feet and his cool and timely leadership in the fourth quarter. Garcia tied his career high with 36 completions, three of which went for touchdowns, and his 21-yard touchdown sprint to put the Niners on the scoreboard in the second quarter was the longest scoring run of his career. He threw for 276 yards and also led the Niners with 50 yards rushing. Bottom line: Niners wouldn't have won without Garcia's clutch performance with game on the line.

RUNNING BACKS

Paul Smith averaged only 3.1 yards on his 13 carries, but he came up big by not making any mistakes and providing some key gains after replacing an injured Garrison Hearst, who had 35 yards on nine carries before being forced out with a hyperextended knee. It was the first time in Smith's three-year career that he had been called upon in a crucial situation, and the converted fullback didn't disappoint with the Niners needing him at tailback. Bottom line: Smith comes through in a pinch.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Terrell Owens' first fourth-quarter touchdown reception was a juggling, acrobatic, athletic catch that will make all the highlight reels, and his second fourth-quarter touchdown reception won the game in the final seconds. Owens finished with 12 receptions for 123 yards in what became another vintage day for the All-Pro wideout. Tight end Eric Johnson reemerged in the passing game with eight receptions, but he also had some drops. Tai Streets had six receptions, including a 23-yard touchdown catch during the Niners' three-touchdown explosion in the fourth quarter. Bottom line: Receivers came through in the end, and Owens showed everybody why he is simply the best receiver in the NFL.

OFFENSIVE LINE

There were a lot of struggles here, with several injuries and penalties, including a 15-yard personal foul by center Jeremy Newberry that turned what would have been a 32-yard field-goal attempt into a 47-yarder. The Niners finished the game with veteran reserve Matt Willig and untested rookie Kyle Kosier manning the right side of their line. But in the end, this unit got it done, and did a good job protecting Garcia, who was sacked just once in 55 passing attempts. Bottom line: Unit held together against tough opponent and came through when it counted.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Unit was stout all day against the run, but the ends didn't contain on a few plays late in the game that allowed Dallas to extend drives that almost cost the Niners. And, while there was good pressure at times on Dallas quarterback Chad Hutchinson, he was never sacked. Ends Andre Carter and Chike Okeafor combined for just five tackles. That's the same combined total that was recorded by tackles Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield, but Stubblefield's last tackle was huge, stopping Emmitt Smith on third-and-1 late in the game with Dallas poised for victory if Smith makes that first down. Bottom line: Not enough pass rush, but big plays at crucial times against the run.

LINEBACKERS

This unit made some huge gaffes in pass coverage, but it was solid against the run. Starting linebackers Derek Smith, Julian Peterson and Jeff Ulbrich combined for 13 tackles, and rookie Brandon Moore made an appearance with three tackles. Peterson displayed his versatility by playing four positions in a yeoman individual effort. Bottom line: Good against run, but blown assignments in pass coverage allowed Cowboys two big plays that kept Dallas offense moving.

SECONDARY

Tony Parrish, playing practically with one arm because of his elbow injury, had two huge interceptions to thwart Dallas drives. He also knocked down two passes, and contributed a valiant effort to a secondary that was literally pieced together because of injuries. Nonetheless, that secondary played well and completely shut down Dallas' wide receivers, who combined for just three receptions for 23 yards. Starting cornerbacks Jason Webster and Ahmed Plummer both played well and combined to knock down three passes. Bottom line: Parrish is a true warrior, and he sparked secondary to its best game in months.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Hide your eyes. Jimmy Williams had a 52-yard punt return before hurting his knee, and Jeff Chandler made a 47-yard field goal, but these units otherwise assembled a terrible performance that almost - and probably should have - cost the Niners the game. Snapper Brian Jennings probably had more poor snaps in this game than he has had previously in his entire three-year NFL career. One of those snaps resulted in a blocked punt that led to a Dallas touchdown, and horrible tackling on the kickoff unit led to an 85-yard touchdown return that almost killed the Niners. Chandler also missed 44- and 55-yard field-goal attempts and his kickoffs were consistently short. Punter Billy LaFleur didn't exactly have a great day, either. Bottom line: Units almost gave game away to Cowboys.

COACHING

It took too long for the offense to get going, but the Niners did the right thing by putting their star offensive players in position to take over the game in the fourth quarter. Defensive strategy was sound and the only place the Cowboys really hurt the Niners was special teams. There was some questionable usage of timeouts, with one wasted in the fourth quarter on a touchdown play that obviously wouldn't be overturned, but the coaches kept the team in this one to the end despite being hampered again during the game by injuries to key players. Bottom line: This one easily could have gotten away from Niners, but they hung together to the finish and the result was their first NFC West title in five years.


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