NFC WILD-CARD 49ers try to shed recent struggles



San Francisco edged the Giants 16-13 in the season opener, but is in a 3-4 slide.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Kerry Collins and the Giants spent the last month winning a frantic fight to make the playoffs. Jeff Garcia and the 49ers spent it staying out of harm's way.
If momentum plays a role in today's game, New York has a big edge. The Giants are rolling, and they're most prognosticators' picks to pull the upset of the wild-card round.
But as you might expect, the teams' quarterbacks have differing opinions on the merits of reaching the playoffs with a head of steam.
"It could be huge," Collins said.
"I don't think it makes a difference at this point," Garcia said.
The game is a rematch of the regular season opener, won 16-13 by the 49ers on a last-second field goal at the Meadowlands. Exactly four months later, the teams will meet again with identical 10-6 records -- but while the Giants have made significant progress this season, it's hard to tell whether San Francisco, despite another good record, has improved much at all.
Won 4 in a row
New York won its last four games, including an impressive overtime victory over Philadelphia in its regular season finale to clinch a playoff spot. Collins was exceptional, becoming the NFC's offensive player of the month with a 105.6 passer rating in December. He completed more than 63 percent of his throws for 1,307 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Giants now have a confidence and a flair they rarely showed in the previous two seasons. Some trace the change to coach Jim Fassel's decision to start calling the plays; other believe they had it all along, but hadn't discovered it yet.
"The first time we played San Francisco, we weren't a very good team," running back Tiki Barber said. "We made a lot of mistakes. We stopped doing that, and we found ways to score. We found ways to move the ball. It's exciting [to do it all] at the same time."
Meanwhile, the Niners really haven't changed -- though Jose Cortez, the kicker who won the teams' first meeting, has been cut.
Clinched a berth early
Playing in a much weaker division than the Giants, the 49ers clinched the NFC West title with three weeks to play despite a 3-4 slide in their final seven games. They also played last Monday night, giving them a short week of preparation for their second straight playoff appearance.
When Garcia, Terrell Owens, Garrison Hearst and San Francisco's powerful offensive line are all in sync, coach Steve Mariucci's offense is one of the NFL's most dangerous. Trouble is, nobody in the 49ers' locker room believes this team has even come close to playing a completely satisfying game this season.
"It's frustrating, because we know we're better than this," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "You look around the room, and I honestly believe this group of guys shouldn't have lost more than once or twice."
The teams will add another postseason meeting to their short but memorable common history at San Francisco. Twelve years ago, the Giants ended the Niners' bid for a third straight Super Bowl title with a 15-13 win in San Francisco in the NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park; three years later, the 49ers returned the favor with a 44-3 playoff victory over the Giants.

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