This time, instead of fining and suspending Owens after an ostentatious celebration in Dallas, coach Steve Mariucci gave him a bear hug.
When Owens hauled in an 8-yard touchdown pass from Garcia with 12 seconds remaining Sunday afternoon, it meant the 49ers had rallied from a late 10-point deficit to record a 31-27 victory over the Cowboys at Texas Stadium.
Owens, who caught the pass in the back of the end zone, spontaneously ran to the helmet logo painted on the artificial surface, turned to face the Cowboys’ fans, held the football aloft and spread his upraised arms as if he was a lead actor accepting a standing ovation following an exceptional performance in a Broadway smash hit.
``If you notice where I was, I did it like I did before,’’ said Owens, resplendent in a Cowboy blue leather suit and a blue-tinted pair of shades. ``It wasn’t planned, though. I just like to have fun in the moment.’’
Owens was referring to his notorious touchdowns celebrations at midfield in Dallas two years ago, for which he was vilified, even by his own team. This time, there was no sprint to the middle of the field, and no rush to judgment afterward.
And Owens made it clear he realized the moment was about more than simply himself.
``It shows the character of this ball club,'' he said. ``A lot of guys stepped up and made plays when we needed them. That’s what championship teams do.’’
Garcia added, ``How can you not get pumped up and excited in moments like that? For me, it was so awesome, and I’m the type of guy who really relies on playing with emotion.’’
With the victory and St. Louis’ lopsided loss at Kansas City, the 49ers (9-4) clinched their first NFC West title since 1997. The division title guarantees them at least one home playoff game, which will be their first at Candlestick Park since 1998. The 49ers still have some work to do if they are to gain a first-round playoff bye and avoid the wild-card round of the postseason.
``We’re happy and we’re thankful but we’re not satisfied,’’ Mariucci said. ``It was exciting and it was against the Dallas Cowboys. But we need to keep it in perspective. It’s Round 13. It was a big road win against a team that beat us here last year. And it clinched the division. We’re going to enjoy it for a day, but we’ve got another big game (Sunday at home against Green Bay).’’
Late in Sunday’s game, this looked as if it would be a very different story.
The 49ers looked as if they were going to find any way possible to give this game to the Cowboys (5-8).
The offense, despite repeatedly getting great field position, seldom was able to capitalize.
The patchwork defense played well, but gave up a late touchdown that seemed as if it would be fatal.
And the special teams almost gave this game away single-handedly, then had a role in the stirring turnaround.
Late in the third quarter, the 49ers held a slim 10-6 lead, but the Dallas offense was doing nothing. Then, disaster struck.
Punting from the 50, the 49ers’ Bill LaFleur was unable to handle a low snap from Brian Jennings. He bobbled the ball, and his punt was blocked by Markus Steele. Derek Ross recovered for Dallas, and by the time he was tackled, he was at the 49ers 13. Two plays later, Emmitt Smith ran the ball in from the 5, and the Cowboys had a 13-10 lead.
The 49ers’ offense, ineffective for the first three quarters, responded with a 12-play, 58-yard drive, ending with a 3-yard pass from Garcia to Owens on a route identical to the crossing pattern they would hook up on at the end of the game.
The pass was high, but Owens reached up with his right arm. He tipped the ball, then bobbled it four times before finally controlling it, all the while keeping both of his feet in-bounds at the back of the end zone.
``It’s just concentration on my part,’’ he said of the catch. ``It’s natural. It’s football.’’
It also may have been the best catch of his career, but the jubilation didn’t last long.
Woodrow Dantzler, eluding a slew of tacklers, returned the ensuing kickoff for an 84-yard touchdown, managing to hop his way for several yards at his own 35 when it seemed inevitable he would go out of bounds. The 49ers thought he did, but their replay challenge was overruled.
The 49ers’ subsequent possession went three-and-out, and the Cowboys, taking over at their 29, drove 71 yards in five plays, this time getting a 1-yard Smith touchdown run for a 27-17 lead with only 6:56 to play.
In other words, the 49ers should have been dead.
But they began to spring back to life when Dallas kicked off and Jamal Robertson - playing for the injured Jimmy Williams - returned it 42 yards to the 50. Four plays later - two of them passes to Owens - the 49ers were in the end zone on a 23-yard pass from Garcia to Tai Streets with 5:26 to play.
Now, it was up to the 49ers’ defense, and the game came down to a third-and-1 play from their 28. Cowboys quarterback Chad Hutchinson handed the ball to Smith, but defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield shot through a gap to drag Smith down short of the first down.
``We knew it was a huge play for us,’’ Stubblefield said.
The 49ers used their final timeout to stop the clock with 2:21 to play, and the Cowboys had a choice. Dallas could have gone for it on fourth down. The worst that could have happened would have been that the Cowboys would have handed the ball over to the 49ers at their 28. In the best case, the Cowboys would have gotten the first down and pretty much iced the game.
Instead, the Cowboys opted to try a 47-yard field goal. Billy Cundiff’s attempt was wide right and the 49ers took over at their 37.
``I’m never going to question the decision an opponent makes,’’ Mariucci said when asked if he was surprised Dallas hadn’t tried for the first down.
Cundiff’s miss was the opening the 49ers needed. On the game-winning 13-play drive, Garcia completed three passes to tight end Eric Johnson, had two third-down quarterback sneaks to get first downs, got an 8-yard run from Paul Smith (playing for the injured Garrison Hearst) and completed an 11-yard pass to Smith.
The last two plays were an 11-yarder to Owens, and the touchdown to Owens, who finished with 12 receptions for 123 yards. On the last play, with the 49ers out of timeouts, Garcia knew he either needed a touchdown or an incompletion. Anything else, and time would have expired.
``T.O. just (sneaked) across the back of the end zone and it opened up for us like it did on the first touchdown,’’ Garcia said. ``We’re happy and excited, but not content. We realize there is still work to do. But everyone stepped up and made a play when we needed it."