Letting it all slip away in San Diego

They were a couple of third-down conversions away, or a fourth-down stop, or, in the end, one very attainable field goal, or one more third-down stop. In short, they had their chances. A lot of chances. And had any one of the key plays gone differently - most notably if Jose Cortez had hit a 41-yard field-goal attempt in overtime - things would be much better today for the 49ers.

They would be atop the NFC standings, they'd have little reason to pay attention to the reincarnation of the St. Louis Rams, and they'd be able to enjoy the extra rest they will be given before they begin preparations for next Monday night's home game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

But in the end Sunday afternoon in San Diego, the 49ers couldn't make any of the key plays that would have swung the outcome, and as a result, they suffered a damaging 20-17 overtime loss to the Chargers before a sellout crowd of 67,161 at Qualcomm Stadium that included a strong 49ers minority.

``I'd rather get blown out than lose the way we did today,'' running back Kevan Barlow said after Steve Christie's 40-yard field goal with 4:11 left in overtime completed San Diego's comeback from a late 10-point deficit. ``I'd rather lose by 50 points. It's heart-breaking and emotionally draining.''

More tangibly, the 49ers (7-3) didn't do themselves any favors in the NFL standings. Instead of being first overall in the NFC, they are the fourth seed with six games to go.

As for the Chargers (7-3), they snapped a two-game losing streak, remained in a first-place tie with Denver in the AFC West, and resoundingly refuted the recent suggestion that they lacked heart - a statement that was made by their star running back, LaDainian Tomlinson.

``It's huge,'' Tomlinson said after Sunday's game when asked if he'd changed his mind. ``That means this team can bounce back from a hard, tough loss like last week and get the job done. This team kept believing, and we found a way to pull it out.''

For most of the second half, it didn't look as if that would happen.

The 49ers snapped a 7-7 halftime tie when Terrell Owens caught a 76-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Garcia less than one minute into the third quarter. It was Owens' second touchdown of the game, and when Cortez hit a 24-yard field goal a few minutes later, the 49ers had a 10-point lead.

But in the fourth quarter, the 49ers began to slip:


--- Early in the quarter and still ahead 17-7, the 49ers failed to convert a third-and-4 from the Chargers 37 and punted. The Chargers responded with a 62-yard drive that ended with a 36-yard field goal by Christie.

--- On the 49ers' next possession, they went three-and-out, Garcia failing to connect with J.J. Stokes on third-and-7. After a Jason Baker punt, the Chargers moved the ball to the 49ers' 15.

It was fourth-and-3 with 1:56 remaining. Chargers quarterback Drew Brees eluded defensive ends Chike Okeafor and Andre Carter, then found Tim Dwight for a 7-yard gain. Otherwise, the game would have been over.

``I was able to get it up and over to Tim,'' Brees said. ``It was a great job of Tim coming back to me. … He did a great job of coming back and finding me.''

Three plays later, a pass-interference penalty on rookie cornerback Mike Rumph put the ball at the 49ers' 1. Two plays after that, Brees passed to fullback Fred McCrary for the tying touchdown with 31 seconds left.

The Chargers won the overtime coin toss, but went three-and-out. The 49ers moved to the Chargers' 23, but here's where the game once again got away from them.

On first down, Garcia audibled from a run to a pass, but misfired on a swing pass to Tai Streets.

``Basically, we had a run play,'' Garcia said. ``It just didn't look good. I tried to give Tai a heads up. The ball was a little high. They blitzed. It was probably a situation where I needed to call a timeout.''

On second down, Garcia was sacked by Marcellus Wiley and Junior Seau for a 5-yard loss.

``It was supposed to be a run play,'' Garcia said. ``I didn't get wide enough to give the ball to Garrison (Hearst). It probably wasn't the best play. I need to do a better job, call a timeout, give us a better opportunity. I missed Garrison and took the sack.''

Third down produced a 5-yard pass to Owens, setting up Cortez for his 41-yard miss, which brought back echoes of a Cortez miss two weeks ago in Oakland. The 49ers ultimately won that game in overtime on a Cortez field goal.

Asked if he'd lost confidence in Cortez, Barlow said, ``Absolutely not. That would be like saying they lost confidence in me because I dropped a fumble in New Orleans (in a loss last month). If we start that, we'll start losing confidence as a team.''

His teammates' support was small consolation for Cortez.

``I feel like I let everybody down,'' said Cortez, who was a training camp kicker for the Chargers a couple of years ago. ``I let my teammates down. I blew the game.''

Asked if Cortez's job was safe, coach Steve Mariucci said, ``We haven't decided anything yet.''

One team's disappointment was another's relief.

``For the most part, (Cortez) missed the ball,'' Seau said. ``I don't know what happened with the kick, but we're fortunate in that we had another opportunity.''

They made the most of it, though the drive almost petered out before it got started.
The Chargers were in danger of another three-and-out, when, on third-and-8 from their 33, Brees hit Dwight for 19 yards. The Chargers were on their way, with an 18-yard completion to rookie Eric Parker putting San Diego in range for Christie's game-winner.

``It just leaves a really bad taste in my mouth,'' Garcia said of the defeat. ``We just didn't make enough plays to put the game away and to win the game. It is a lot of disappointment right now."

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