Niners need a T.O. breakthrough

In San Francisco's season-ending wild-card playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers last January, Terrell Owens caught four passes for 40 yards. In the Niners' season-opening win over the New York Giants in September, Owens had four receptions for 41 yards. See any pattern there? You can bet the Giants do as they prepare to meet Owens and the Niners again in Sunday's wild-card game.

The Giants made a concentrated effort to take Owens out of the game in San Francisco's 16-13 victory on Sept. 5. For the most part, New York was successful. Owens had only three receptions for eight yards until two minutes remained in the game.

But that's when Owens broke loose for a 33-yard reception that set up Jose Cortez's game-winning field goal. Cornerback Jason Sehorn botched the coverage on that play, or else the Giants might have completely shut down the Niners' All-Pro receiver.

The Giants obviously will be trying to do that Sunday, at least to some degree.

"If you make one mistake, great players will hurt you," Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "And T.O. is a great player. My attitude with guys like that is that you aren't going to shut them out from getting their catches. They are going to get their catches. The only thing you can do is try to minimize the huge plays that they make. That is all you can ask for in a game like that."

Owens rebounded from his slow start vs. the Giants to catch 96 passes in San Francisco's next 13 games and finish with a career-high 100 receptions. But just as the Giants were successful in limiting Owens' opportunities in September, so were the Packers in last January's playoff game. It was a big reason Green Bay pulled away form a 15-15 tie in the fourth quarter to win.

If New York can similarly limit Owens - which the Giants already have done once this season - its chances at victory will be greatly improved. Just as the 49ers' chances greatly improve if they can get Owens more involved.

The Niners held Owens out the final two weeks of the season against Arizona and St. Louis to rest his groin and heel injuries and make sure he is completely fresh for the playoffs. He practiced on consecutive days this week for the first time in a month, though not at the end of the week because the Niners, "want his legs to shut down for a few days so they are as fresh as possible in the game," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said.

"Of course we would like to have him more productive when it's all said and done," Mariucci said. "Therein lies the battle because the Giants are saying they are going to keep the ball out of his hands. That's their plan and that's our plan. So let's play."





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