Best of the West
Niners take sole possession of first place with 38-28 winPosted: Sunday October 27, 2002 8:13 PM
Updated: Monday October 28, 2002 1:03 AM
Arizona and San Francisco were tied for first place in the division, but the more experienced 49ers (5-2) scored 24 points -- including a 21-yard TD grab by Owens -- before the second quarter was a minute old. Owens added another touchdown late in the first half, sprinting through the secondary for a 61-yard score.
"I'm watching in awe in a lot of ways," said Garcia, who completed 18 of 28 passes. "To take a simple slant pass like that and move it all the way for a touchdown ... T.O. gives us a capacity that very few teams have."
Owens finished with eight catches for 132 yards. He even signed another one of his catches with a pen from his sock -- but it was during pregame warmups, when he caught a practice pass and pulled the same trick that earned him a warning from the league after he did it during a victory over Seattle two weeks ago. This time, Owens handed the ball to a kid.
The 49ers, missing several injured regulars and struggling on defense, barely hung on against Arizona's roaring second-half rally. Jake Plummer twice got the Cardinals (4-3) within 10 points, and they were driving again when Ronnie Heard made his third interception with 5:26 left to seal it for San Francisco.
Still, in their most important game since their 1998 playoff run, the Cardinals proved their strong start to the season wasn't a fluke.
"I should be disappointed, and I am in a certain way -- but these guys in this room were fighting all the way to the last second," Cardinals safety Kwamie Lassiter said. "We just can't spot a team that many points. ... [Owens] made the plays. We had a good scheme, but it didn't work against him, anyway."
Marcel Shipp ran for two TDs for the Cardinals, whose three-game winning streak ended.
Kevan Barlow caught a TD pass and ran for another score for the 49ers, who carved up one of the NFL's toughest defenses. But neither team's defenders will be smiling after a game in which the offenses combined for 757 yards.
With seven minutes left, Plummer made another one of the uncanny plays that have been his hallmark. Plummer fumbled backward while avoiding a sack, but he recovered the ball and completed a pass to Frank Sanders to keep a drive alive.
Moments later, Heard stepped in front of David Boston at the goal line and returned the interception to the 36. The three picks were the most in five seasons by a San Francisco player, and the first of Heard's career.
"On the last one, I was just reading [Plummer's] eyes, and I saw what he wanted to do," said Heard, who made his fifth career start in place of injured Zack Bronson. "I got in front, and it just stuck to my chest. I was like, 'Oh, oh, I got it!'"
San Francisco then ran out the clock with a lengthy drive that included a 13-yard pass from Garcia to Owens on fourth-and-8 near the end zone. The 49ers kneeled on the ball twice inside the 5 to end the game -- a move that's bound to upset Owens, who complained about exactly the same strategy after the Niners' win over Washington.
Owens sprinted to the locker room at the final whistle, and he left the 49ers' locker room moments after the game.
Plummer passed for 286 yards and scored on a brilliant 34-yard TD run through the blitzing San Francisco defense, but he also made four turnovers.
"Two of [the turnovers] were in the red zone, but I'm not going to sit here and tell you, 'If this would have happened, if that would have happened,'" Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis said. "You saw what happened. They came out and controlled the ballgame."
Heard had two interceptions in the first half, including one in the end zone with 56 seconds left. The 49ers then drove 80 yards, with Owens catching a short pass at San Francisco's 45 and romping downfield for the score.
"Terrell is the best player in the National Football League," Boston said. "When he makes plays like he did near the end of the first half, it's not very surprising."
Notes: The Cardinals lost backup WR Bryan Gilmore on an end zone collision late in the first half. Gilmore's leg was placed in a clear protective boot, and he was taken to the locker room on a
cart. ... The 49ers didn't have enough healthy bodies to suit up a
full roster of 45 players. TE Eric Johnson and WR J.J. Stokes didn't dress, while RB Garrison Hearst (hamstring) and LB Jeff Ulbrich (hyperextended knee) missed most of the second half.