NFC PLAYOFFS Historic rally has Niners believing



But San Francisco must overcome injuries to earn a road win against Tampa.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
By winning the NFC West Division with ease and advancing to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci is pleased with his team's progress this season.
Mariucci is hoping the youth-laden 49ers, who have been rebuilt into contender status after a salary cap purge in 1999, can add to the team's growth with a road playoff victory Sunday in Tampa to earn a berth in the franchise's first NFC Championship Game in five years.
"We took two steps this year," said Mariucci in a telephone interview Tuesday from the 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. "Winning the division was something we hadn't done in a few years, same with advancing in the playoffs. We're getting there, we're getting closer to where we want to be."
Comeback
The Niners remain in the Super Bowl chase thanks to Sunday's come-from-way-behind 39-38 victory over the New York Giants at 49ers Stadium.
Trailing 38-14 in the third quarter, the Niners scored 25 unanswered points, then survived a botched Giants field-goal attempt on the game's final play for the right to play the Buccaneers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
"I'm very proud of the way we did it," said Mariucci of the comeback, the second-biggest rally in playoff history and the fifth of any NFL game. "We did it in historic fashion. That was the most exciting game you're ever going to be a part of.
"The way we got our act together in the second half, with the defense stopping them from scoring and then the offense scoring on every remaining possession -- that was tremendous," Mariucci said.
As exciting as the 25-point comeback was, the game's finish was even wackier when the officials penalized the Giants for ineligible receivers downfield but did not penalize 49ers lineman Chike Okeafor for pulling down an eligible receiver.
Monday, the NFL apologized to the Giants, saying both teams should have been penalized and one more play run.
Mariucci said the scene on the field was chaotic as the game ended and the referee offered him no explanation.
"Nor did I go looking for one," Mariucci said.
Injuries
As they have all season, injuries remain a concern for the 49ers.
Mariucci said kicker Jeff Chandler, who injured his non-kicking leg in Sunday's warm-up, "is limping around here a little bit."
His status for Sunday's game is questionable.
So are offensive linemen Ron Stone and Derrick Deese, who both aggravated ankle injuries in the Giants game.
"We're limiting them in practice this week and hoping they'll be ready to go," said Mariucci, who gave his players Tuesday off in an effort to rest them after Sunday's long game.
Cornerback Jason Webster, who sprained his ankle in Week 17 in St. Louis and sat out the Giants game, also hasn't practiced since his injury, but he could play Sunday.
Mariucci was impressed with how well offensive right tackle Scott Gragg did against the Giants' Michael Strahan, the owner of the league record for sacks.
"Twice he shut the sack leader out," said Mariucci, referring to the 49ers' 16-13 win in Week 1 in Giants Stadium. "Gragg has been superb in keeping Strahan away from [quarterback Jeff Garcia].
"Gragg is very steady and very dependable -- he has [113] consecutive games he's started and that's quite a streak," Mariucci said.
Breakout game
Tight end Eric Johnson also earned high marks for eight catches for 78 yards.
Mariucci called Johnson's performance "his breakout game."
"He's a great kid and a hard worker playing an unlikely position," he said.
Johnson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2001, played wide receiver for Yale.
Mariucci said Stone and another seventh-round pick, rookie offensive guard Eric Heitmann, will have the responsibility of keeping Buccaneers lineman Warren Sapp out of Garcia's reach.
"Sapp flip-flops from side to side, so both Stone and Heitmann will draw duty against him," Mariucci said.
williams@vindy.com

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