The team's playoff opponent and site will be based on the outcome of three games this weekend.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
Professional athletes and coaches like to proclaim that they are too busy during games to pay attention to what else is transpiring throughout the league at the same time.
Don't count San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci as being part of the "it doesn't matter" gang.
Speaking by telephone from the 49ers training headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., Mariucci said Thursday he and his staff want to know exactly what's going on in Sunday's games at the Meadowlands in New Jersey and Chicago's Soldier Field while the Niners are playing the New Orleans Saints in the Louisiana Superdome.
Jockeying for position: The Niners-Saints game plus the Green Bay Packers-New York Giants and the Jacksonville Jaguars-Chicago Bears contests will determine the final playoff positions for the NFC.
What's happening elsewhere will have an effect on San Francisco's strategy.
As the 49ers coaches were wrapping up their game planning for Sunday's NFL regular-season finale against the Saints in New Orleans, Mariucci posed an important "what if" question.
"I asked my coaches what should we do if we go into the locker room at halftime ahead 14-10 and find out the [Green Bay] Packers are leading 30-0," Mariucci said.
"Should we keep trying to win knowing full well we'll be in Green Bay or perhaps Chicago the next week no matter what?" Mariucci asked his staff to ponder.
"Do we still try to win or do we play it smart and not expose those who are nursing injuries because the most important game of the season is still to come?"
"Mind you, I don't expect Green Bay to be ahead 30-0, because the New York Giants are too good," San Francisco's fifth-year head coach said.
Loss hurt: The 49ers, who are owned by John and Denise DeBartolo York of Canfield, find themselves having to scoreboard-watch because of last Sunday's upset loss in Dallas to the Cowboys, 27-21.
Going into that game, the 49ers could have secured a home playoff game by defeating the Cowboys and Saints.
San Francisco still could be the host team to the Packers, but the 49ers need help from the defending NFC champions.
If the 49ers defeat the Saints (7-8) while the Packers (11-4) lose to the Giants (7-8), San Francisco's 3Com Park would be the site of the first-round NFC playoff game between the Packers and 49ers.
But if Green Bay wins Sunday, the 49ers will open the playoffs on the road at Chicago or Green Bay. If the Bears (12-3) lose to the Jaguars (6-9) and the Packers win, Green Bay would win the NFC Central Division and earn a first-round bye. If the Bears win, they'll enjoy a week off.
"I can see the networks constantly cutting back and forth from these three games to provide updates," Mariucci said.
The Packers own the tiebreakers against the Bears and 49ers. Chicago's overtime win over the 49ers on Oct. 28 gives the Bears the edge against San Francisco if both finish as wild-cards with 12-4 records.
"It's been a busy week, with the holiday in the middle of it and us preparing for not only the Saints, but also the Bears and Packers," said Mariucci, who added that the Saints' record is very deceiving.
"They have one heckuva running back [Ricky Williams] playing behind a terrific offensive line," Mariucci said. "ln fact, the strength of their big, strong, physical team plays in the trenches."
Williams is the fourth-leading rusher in the NFC with 1,212 yards on 302 carries.
"They are a playoff-caliber team," Mariucci said. "They are the team that matches up with the [top-seeded St. Louis] Rams better than anyone."
Back for more: The 49ers are in the playoffs for the third time under Mariucci, who succeeded George Seifert after the 1996 season and led his team to the NFC Championship Game in his first season.
Unlike Mariucci's first two playoff teams, the 2001-02 49ers are a surprising postseason qualifier after the team released most of its playoff-tested veterans to get under the 1999 salary cap.
Two of the main reasons the team is back in the playoff picture are quarterback Jeff Garcia and running back Garrison Hearst, who have been named to the NFC's Pro Bowl team
"Garcia has enjoyed Pro Bowl seasons back to back now and it's a well deserved honor," said Mariucci of his 31-year-old quarterback who's in his third NFL season. "Garcia, [Packers quarterback Brett] Favre and [Rams quarterback Kurt] Warner are the three best."
Through 15 games, Garcia has completed 302 of 483 passes for 3,275 yards and 28 touchdowns. He's thrown just 12 interceptions.
"Garcia continues to prove to us he's our leader and quarterback of the future," Mariucci said. "He's ready to lead us in the playoffs."
Mariucci said he's especially happy for Hearst, who missed the 1998 Pro Bowl when he snapped his ankle on the first play of the 49ers playoff game against the Falcons in Atlanta.
"After that accident, it was very unlikely he'd ever play again. He's had five surgeries and so much rehab," Mariucci said. "It's a minor miracle -- his persistence has made us very proud."
After two seasons of recovery, Hearst has rushed for 1,149 yards on 237 carries.
"We've known for some time what a fine player we have in Garrison Hearst," Mariucci said. "His being elected to another Pro Bowl shows how much the rest of league's players and coaches appreciate him."
Not looking ahead: As for a return trip to New Orleans for Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb. 3, Mariucci said he's not using this weekend's trip to the Big Easy as inspiration.
"We just take things one game at a time," Mariucci said. "Our players know there's a lot of work to be accomplished before we could return there again."