Niners leave Eagles waiting for playoff assurance

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Over and over again, the Philadelphia
Eagles fell just a few inches short -- and the San Francisco 49ers'
confidence grew with each dramatic stop.

Derek Smith made two exceptional plays during a game-turning
defensive stand in the fourth quarter, and Terrell Owens caught a
32-yard touchdown pass with 6:52 left as the 49ers beat
Philadelphia 13-3 on Saturday.

The Eagles' first road loss of the season came in a game of
inches -- specifically, the handful of inches Philadelphia couldn't
gain on six consecutive plays inside the 2 early in the fourth

"Nobody blinked," Smith said. "We got in there and kept
stopping them. We've gone through some growing pains, but our
defense has come along fantastically."

The 49ers' young defense finally won the battle of wills with an
end-zone interception by Smith, their hard-hitting linebacker.
Moments later, Jeff Garcia and Owens broke San Francisco's offense
out of its doldrums with a scoring strike that clinched the game.

Playing for little more than playoff position, the 49ers (11-3)
finished their home schedule 7-1 -- and greatly increased their
chances of a home game in the playoffs.

"We haven't had a defensive stand like that," 49ers coach
Steve Mariucci said. "It seemed like 100 plays. We just kept
stuffing them and stuffing them. That can be very demoralizing for
them. It shows we're growing up real fast."

The Eagles (9-5) could have wrapped up a playoff berth and their
first NFC East title since 1988. Instead, Philadelphia got just
three points from two trips inside San Francisco's 5, and the
Eagles' pass defense failed at a critical time.

Though Philadelphia still is all but certain to win its division
and make the playoffs, the Eagles regret the opportunities that got
away from them on a misty, windy day. The heavy rains that pelted
the Bay Area on Saturday stopped by game time, but the field was
slippery and muddy in many spots.

Philadelphia still can clinch the division if the New York
Giants lose to Seattle on Sunday, but nobody in the Eagles' locker
room wanted to back in.

"We had a chance to finish this off, and we didn't do it,"
said running back Duce Staley, who caught nine passes for 103
yards. "I'm hungry. Hopefully we'll see them again."

The Niners posted the first consecutive home shutouts in
franchise history in their previous two games. They frustrated
Donovan McNabb, who was 23-of-34 for 232 yards but couldn't get his
team in the end zone.

Smith's interception almost wasn't necessary. Leading 6-3 early
in the fourth, the 49ers thought they had made a dramatic goal-line
stand when Smith, who had nine tackles, flung McNabb out of bounds
on fourth down -- but Lance Schulters was called for holding.

Starting from the 1, Philadelphia tried two running plays that
were stopped at the line. On third down, Smith sneaked in front of
McNabb's pass to Chad Lewis.

It was the first interception of the season for Smith, who came
to the 49ers as a free agent from Washington last season and has
quickly emerged as a team leader.

"I read his eyes," Smith said. "I don't think he saw me. You
could feel the urgency on the field. Somebody had to make that

San Francisco also failed to score touchdowns on two drives
inside the Eagles' 5, but the offense finally came alive after
Smith's interception with one big play from their two biggest

Owens is nursing a hip pointer and injuries to both feet,
limiting his effectiveness in recent weeks. But after the Niners
moved to midfield when Owens drew an interference penalty, Garcia
hit his favorite target over the middle for Owens' 14th score of
the season.

"I told those guys in the huddle that we had to get this party
started," Owens said. "We owed it to the defense."

The Eagles came out with the energy expected from a team playing
for a postseason berth. McNabb completed all eight of his passes in
the first quarter, but the Eagles' best drive stalled on the 2.

David Akers' 20-yard field goal was the first -- and only -- score
allowed by San Francisco at 3Com Park since Nov. 8.

The Niners tied it shortly before halftime on a 21-yard chip by
Jose Cortez, and they went ahead on another short field goal late
in the third quarter.

Game notes
Garcia, whose practice time was limited all week, admitted
after the game that he has a cracked rib. He played with extra
padding, saying it didn't greatly affect his throws. ... Mariucci
won his first meeting with Eagles coach Andy Reid, his former
colleague and close friend. ... The 49ers lost two starters to
broken bones. Fullback Fred Beasley broke his right hand, while
defensive end Chike Okeafor broke his right leg.

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