Owens drops Packers, too, in 30-27 win

49ers receiver makes amends for woes with TD catch in last : 03

January 04, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN FRANCISCO — Terrell Owens stood before his San Francisco 49ers teammates yesterday just as day turned to night and told them he was sorry.

Dropped passes, including one in the end zone and one that could have put the game away. A fumble, which led to the Green Bay Packers' first touchdown. These were the scars from a game Owens called his worst ever.

"I let the team down," Owens said. "I was horrible."

But as he apologized, most of 66,506 fans remained in the stands at 3Com Park, celebrating the 49ers' 30-27 victory over the Packers in an NFC wild-card game. They chanted Owens' name. They watched a half-dozen replays of his 25-yard touchdown catch with three seconds left. They cheered the end of a five-game losing streak to the Packers.

Owens was sorry for his mistakes. San Francisco was thankful for his one accomplishment, that being the biggest play in the biggest game of the 49ers' season.

"I am so happy for Terrell," said San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci, whose team advanced to play at Atlanta on Saturday. "I know there were a lot of plays he wanted to have back. But then he came up with one of the biggest catches in this organization's history."

It would stand simply as "The Catch," had that not been reserved for Dwight Clark's game-winner from Joe Montana in the 1981 NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys. Or the one from Montana to John Taylor to win Super Bowl XXIII. It may be remembered for the name of the play, All-Go, which quarterback Steve Young called in the huddle on what appeared to be the 49ers' last chance of ending years of futility against the Packers.

Green Bay had eliminated San Francisco from the playoffs the three previous seasons, and Young was 0-8 against the Packers as a starter. It looked as if those trends would continue after Brett Favre's 15-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman put Green Bay ahead 27-23 with 1: 56 left.

Owens said he looked up at the clock as Freeman made that catch, wondering if there was time for redemption. During that Packers drive, Jerry Rice, Terry Kirby and others had consoled Owens because it was his drop of a third-down pass that gave Green Bay the ball with 3: 38 left.

But starting at its 24 with 1: 56 remaining, San Francisco moved the ball as Young connected with five receivers on six completions. One catch was by Rice -- his only grab of the day -- and, although it gained only 6 yards, it is sure to be a sore subject with Packers fans until next season.

Replays showed Rice fumbled before being brought down, but officials ruled the ball came loose after the play was dead.

Said Rice: "It could have been a fumble, but I thought I was down."

There was a different sentiment in the hushed Green Bay locker room, where defensive end Reggie White and perhaps coach Mike Holmgren had seen their Packers careers come to a sudden end.

"That was clearly a fumble," Packers general manager Ron Wolf fumed. "We clearly recovered. The game's over."

"Absolutely," strong safety LeRoy Butler declared. "But he's Jerry Rice and I can't comment on the referees or I'll get fined."

Holmgren allowed, "Jerry certainly has earned his respect in this business, but I think when they call the game they shouldn't look at the numbers."

Young had his choice of numbers to look at on the winning play, which called for four San Francisco receivers to sprint to the end zone. Owens, lined up on the inside right, was matched up with Butler.

"He was playing me to the outside, so I faked outside and then knifed inside," Owens said. "Steve threw the ball right where it was supposed to be."

That was among four Packers defenders. The last two, Pat Terrell and Darren Sharper, sandwiched Owens in the air just as the ball reached his chest.

"When the ball goes down the middle like that, you don't think it is going to be caught, ever," Holmgren said.

But it was, and it set off a celebration at 3Com that Mariucci said was a long time coming. "In some ways, we got a monkey off our back," he said. "And that it happened makes it all that much more exciting."

Owens was excited and relieved, and it showed on his face as he came to the sideline after the catch. He hugged Mariucci, whom some said might lose his job if he lost again to the Packers, and Young, who was dogged all week about his record against the Packers.

"[Owens] was beside himself," Mariucci said. "I couldn't tell if he was hurt or crying. It was just very emotional."

Said Owens: "I was just happy I caught the ball. I knew I had to come back and make a big play after all those drops. I let the team down in the beginning, but luckily I got to come back and make a big play in the end."

The score capped a nine-play, 76-yard drive after Favre and Freeman (Poly) seemingly had won the game with 1: 56 remaining.

"I felt we had them," Favre said. "But Young, he's a great player. I didn't think they'd go down easy.

"Anybody who watched that game has to think it's the greatest game they've ever seen. The great players make big plays in big games. They made some and we made some."

Garrison Hearst, giving San Francisco a viable running game for the first time in its four playoff meetings with the Packers, gained 128 yards. Dorsey Levens rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown for Green Bay, but also had a costly fumble.

The loss could mark the end of an era for the Packers (11-6), denied in their bid to be the first NFC team to reach three straight Super Bowls.

"I guess stunned would be a good word," Freeman said. "I'm not sure if guys are feeling anything right now. I'm still numb."

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