The 49ers have plenty of reasons to be pleased to get back to the West Coast with a 16-13 victory over the New York Giants on a historic season-opening Thursday night at the Meadowlands.
"I told the team that I'm most proud about how they handled a difficult game," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "We were just flopping around, is how I like to describe it in the first half and it was rough sledding. It was hard to make a first down, but I didn't see any frustration. I saw some real pros out there."
He also saw just enough of the team's old offense to pull out the dramatic victory on Jose Cortez's 36-yard field goal with six seconds remaining in the game.
Up until the 49ers' final drive, their vaunted offense was MIA. But when it mattered most, the 49ers' passing game showed up in the final two minutes of the game.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia came through when he had to; so did receiver Terrell Owens. If the game demonstrated anything, it's that nothing is going to come easy for the 49ers, who have high hopes coming off a 12-4 season.
"We need to look at that as a weekly situation," Garcia said. "We can't look past anybody and can't believe that we're a playoff team. Tonight we were fortunate to come out of here with a win."
It wasn't always pretty, but in the end, it was effective.
The defense, looking to improve dramatically on a No. 13 league-wide ranking a year ago, kept the 49ers in the game. Even the defense had plenty of room to improve. It allowed Giants quarterback Kerry Collins to pass for 342 yards as New York converted 56 percent (9 of 16) of its third downs.
But the 49ers' defense kept the Giants out of the end zone until late in the fourth quarter. The Giants had to drive 77 yards for the game-tying score with 1:55 remaining. But after New York running back Tiki Barber scored from a yard out to make the score 13-13, the 49ers' offense seemed to awaken.
Owens had been the focus of the Giants defense from the opening drive, when a potential touchdown pass glanced off his hands as he was surrounded by three defenders. His quest for a 2,000-yard season hit a snag in the opening week under the pounding he took from the Giants secondary.
"I knew what their game plan was, to take me out of the game," Owens said. "The guys made plays and the most important thing was to come out of here with a ‘W.'"
Owens, an All-Pro selection a year ago, caught just four passes for 41 yards, but all but 8 of those yards came on the final drive, which began from the 49ers' 30-yard line with 1:49 remaining.
But, finally, when the 49ers needed Owens most, Garcia found him open for a 33-yard gain to the Giants 37-yard line on the first play of the drive.
"I caught the one that counted," said Owens, who failed to latch onto three catchable passes in the game. "I got a release off Jason Sehorn and made the play."
"They were just playing defense," 49ers receivers coach George Stewart said. "They weren't doing anything with him that other teams don't do."
Receiver J.J. Stokes caught a 12-yard pass on the next play to place the 49ers in field-goal range. After three Garrison Hearst running plays netted 7 yards, Cortez trotted onto the field to attempt the game-winner.
"I looked at him and said, 'Hit it, will ya,'" Mariucci said.
Cortez, who had five field-goal attempts blocked last season, had a 25-yard kick blocked in the first quarter. He also had a 48-yard attempt come up short. So this was anything but a certainty that he was going to make it. Cortez also made kicks from 23 and 33 yards.
"The third one was the best one that I hit," Cortez said. "It was so solid and I knew right away that I hit it good and it was going to be right down the middle. I was glad that I came back and hit the game-winning field goal."
The 49ers also opened last season with a 16-13 victory - that time over the Atlanta Falcons. Again, it was Cortez who accounted for the winning points with a 24-yarder in overtime.
The only reason Cortez and the offense were in position to pull out the victory was because of a strong performance from the 49ers' defense. Although the Giants gained 361 yards to the 49ers' 279, the 49ers also forced three interceptions.
The Giants, who thrive on their running attack, managed just 43 yards rushing on 20 carries. Niners linebacker Jamie Winborn, playing in place of injured starter Jeff Ulbrich at the "plugger" position, posted 16 tackles. It was the most tackles for a 49ers player since Ken Norton Jr. had 18 stops in a November 1998 game.
"This is a big win for us," 49ers defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "But we can do nothing but get better. There's only one way for this team to go, and that's up."
For most of the game, the 49ers' offense needed all the help it could get. Garcia completed 16 of 26 passes for 166 yards. The 49ers got a huge break in the third quarter, thanks to an error made by the officiating crew to spot the ball 1 yard closer to the end zone.
With the 49ers trailing 6-3 in the third quarter, running back Kevan Barlow made a great run after the catch to gain 29 yards on a third-and-3 play to the Giants' 5-yard line. Garrison Hearst was stopped for no gain on first down. On second down, Garcia threw incomplete, and the ball was inexplicably spotted on the 4-yard line.
When Eric Johnson was called for a false start, the ball was moved back to the 9-yard line. Because the stats crew didn't have any other options, they officially called it a 4-yard penalty to the 9. If it was a 5-yard penalty, the 49ers might not have scored their only touchdown of the game.
Hearst barely made it over the goal line after catching a short pass from Garcia. Without that extra yard that was generously given to the 49ers, they might have had to settle for another field-goal attempt.
But they didn't. And that left them with the chance to go for a field goal and the win in the final minutes.