It will be TOUGH to knock out Niners

The 49ers have been kings of the close games. With squeaker wins at Carolina, vs. New Orleans and against Atlanta twice, San Francisco has grown accustomed to expecting to win games that come down to the wire. Of course, they have lost a close one too: In Week 7, the 49ers had a 31-16 lead at Chicago with seven minutes, 47 seconds left, but gave up 15 points in that span and lost in overtime.


Still, San Francisco has usually remained poised in the fourth quarter. And after nine games, the Niners were a game behind the Rams in the NFC West at 7-2. Like the Bills' previous opponent, Miami, San Francisco players have been saying that they're succeeding despite not playing to their full potential.


49ers on offense

With the success the 49ers have had with their passing attack, as shown by the countless highlights that come from the Jeff Garcia-to-Terrell Owens connection each week, most people wouldn't think of San Francisco as much of a running team. Sure, Garrison Hearst is a nice back and all, but the 49ers are a pass-happy team like the Dolphins were under Dan Marino, right? Wrong.

The fact is the Niners boasted the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack after Week 10, averaging 144.9 yards per game. And it's not all Hearst either. Hearst, the team's primary back who runs mostly as a lone tailback, averaged 670 yards on 135 carries (a 5.0-yard average). Rookie Kevan Barlow, who usually runs behind fullback Fred Beasley, had 308 yards on 71 carries (a 4.3-yard average). And when there is too much pressure, Garcia will take off and run, though he suffered a knee strain Nov. 11, which has hampered his running. He had 215 yards (6th among QBs) on 54 scrambles, plus three touchdowns. Hearst and Barlow will catch passes out of the backfield and line up wide too.

The San Francisco offense thrives on spreading the ball around. Terrell Owens is the go-to player, but the Niners also have receivers J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets. Streets hadn't done much through nine games and Stokes only recently came alive with two touchdowns vs. the Panthers Nov. 18 – his first touchdowns since opening day. Rookie tight end Eric Johnson had 24 receptions and two touchdowns. Buffalo will have to watch these secondary players because Garcia had shown signs of developing other threats than just Owens, Stokes and Streets. Even Beasley and deep reserve RB Terry Jackson had caught passes.

The 49ers had only allowed 16 sacks after Week 10, which was in the NFL's top-10. One reason the offensive line is so good is because it's a veteran group of five players who've all started at least two seasons together as a unit. Compare that to the Bills – well, there is no comparison. Left tackle Derek Deese had a sprained ankle, but he should be OK.

Key matchup: Bills middle linebacker Brandon Spoon vs. 49ers running back Garrison Hearst. Hearst can run and catch. He averaged about 74 yards rushing and 30 yards receiving a game. He doesn't score many touchdowns, but he's a major player in helping the Niners move the ball. Spoon must contain Hearst.

The way to win: Force turnovers. The 49ers are among the best offensive teams the Bills will face all year – great running and passing attack. They're going to move the ball in their own stadium. Buffalo must make up for that by forcing as many turnovers as possible, something it has not consistently done this year, but which will be imperative in this game.


Offensive player to watch

WR 81 Terrell Owens

Ht.: 6'3" Wt.: 226

Through Week 10, Terrell Owens was third in the NFL with 63 receptions and third in the NFL with 863 receiving yards. He also led the league in touchdowns with 11. He is Jeff Garcia's favorite receiver: a rare combination of quickness, size and speed. After the Bears beat the 49ers in Week 7, Owens made national headlines for roundly criticizing Coach Steve Mariucci's offensive play-calling. But there can't be too much Owens can complain about with the 49ers humming along and with him being one of the NFL's top receivers. The Niners' coaching staff wisely chooses to live with Owens' rants.


49ers on defense

The 49ers defense is not an overly aggressive unit. The defensive line is anchored by left tackle Bryant Young and right tackle Dana Stubblefield. Stubblefield returned to San Francisco in the off-season after three seasons of playing – or hardly playing – for the Redskins, in which he collected only seven sacks in 37 starts for the team. Never mind though, Stubblefield collected his millions of dollars in bonus money when he signed with the Skins, taking full advantage of the opportunity that his 15-sack, defensive-player-of-the-year season afforded him as a Niner in '97. He certainly knows when he's about to become a free agent.

Young is still good, though he only had two sacks and recently suffered a sprained ankle and dislocated finger. He shouldn't miss time. Left end John Engelberger, whom the Bills bypassed for Erik Flowers, isn't exactly tearing it up either. He had two sacks. Rookie right end Andre Carter, the No. 7 overall pick, has two sacks too. Overall, the defensive line had been disappointing.

Strongside linebacker Julian Peterson is another high first-round draft pick of the Niners. He's a strong, athletic linebacker with great speed and big-play ability. He's supposed to be a pass rusher. Unfortunately, he had zero sacks, though he managed to pick up a fumble for a touchdown vs. Chicago. Weakside linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, whom the 49ers consider an inside linebacker, because he plays inside the box more than outside it, was second on the team in tackles. He's good at pursuing plays and finishing them.

The 49ers blitz sparingly. Occasionally, they send Ahmed Plummer or Jason Webster on a corner blitz. Plummer and Webster are good, young corners whom San Francisco can rely on for a long time – like Antoine Winfield and Nate Clements. Winfield and Clements were teammates of Plummer's at Ohio State. Plummer had three interceptions and Webster had two. Free safety Zach Bronson had a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown against Chicago. He also was third on the team in tackles.

Key matchup: Bills wide receiver Eric Moulds vs. 49ers left cornerback Ahmed Plummer. Moulds won't match up against Plummer all the time, but he will quite a bit. Seattle's Shawn Springs did a good job shutting down Moulds. Plummer is a similar shut-down corner. Moulds, who's having a down year with the struggling offense, will want to shine in prime-time.

The way to win: Pass the football. The 49ers don't get much pressure on the quarterback. They only had 12 sacks through nine games, which was last in the league. Their run defense is better. Alex Van Pelt should have time to find his receivers and running backs, and if he doesn't, then the Bills' line is really bad.


Defensive player to watch

MLB 50 Derek Smith

Ht.: 6'2" Wt.: 245

Derek Smith tore the MCL in his left knee, but sat out three weeks, missing two games (Niners had a bye). The tear didn't require surgery, and so Smith now wears a knee brace to protect himself. Now Smith isn't a particularly fast player, but he is a smart, aggressive player who seldom makes mistakes and, if he makes a mistake, seldom makes the same mistake twice. He isn't afraid to stick his nose into the middle of a pile, to take on guards who outweigh him by 50 pounds and to wrap up running backs who are coming at him with more momentum than a nuclear missile.


Special teams

After nine games, kicker Jose Cortez was 13 of 16 (81.2 percent). Cortez has a strong leg – he made a 52-yarder – but there was concern about his leg tiring after he played year-round in the XFL, NFL Europe and now the NFL. Cortez gets his kickoffs inside the five-yard line, but sometimes kicks them short – which is a strategy that former Bills and current Niners special teams coach Bruce Dehaven uses to limit returns. It works – the Niners' kickoff coverage allowed a 20.8-yard return average, which was sixth in the NFL. However, teams had an average drive start at the Niners' 29.8-yard line, which was among the worst in the league. Punter Jason Baker had a 34.5-yard net average, which was below average. The Niners' punt coverage gave up an average of 10.6 yards, which was about in the lower third of the league. Kickoff returner Vinny Sutherland averaged 22.7 yards per return, which was in the lower half of the league. Sutherland returned punts as well and averaged 8.3 yards, which is OK.

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