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A New Task for San Francisco

Football: 49ers take on a Bronco team that has accomplished something they've failed to do in recent years--beat the Rams.


SAN FRANCISCO — For three years now, all of the San Francisco 49ers, from General Manager Terry Donahue to safety Zack Bronson, have been focused on beating the mighty St. Louis Rams.

At Candlestick Point today, the 49ers will take things one step further, trying to beat a team that's already beaten the Rams.

The Denver Broncos opened the season with a surprising 23-16 victory over St. Louis, the defending NFC champions and the 49ers' recent tormentors in the NFC West. From Brian Griese's late-game rebound to defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes' suffocating game plan, the Broncos were everything the 49ers want to be.

Bronson, a seldom-used backup when the 49ers began their rebuilding project with a 4-12 record in 1999, was impressed by the Broncos' ability to solve problems that have stumped San Francisco for years.

"Just watching the way they play the Rams, you can tell they're a team that's going to win a lot of games," said Bronson, now a starter. "I think everybody here was impressed by what they did. The Rams are the ones we measure ourselves by. That's about the best quality of early-season victory that you can get."

Two franchises with seven Super Bowl titles between them will use a rare regular-season meeting to gauge their progress. The Broncos plan on getting back to the playoffs after missing them last season, while the 49ers are determined to reach the Rams' level.

That's why San Francisco Coach Steve Mariucci made sure the Niners were aware of the Broncos' accomplishments.

"They held the Rams to minimal yards rushing and the fewest points the Rams are ever going to score," Mariucci said. "That's pretty impressive."

The Broncos' first visit to Candlestick since 1997 gives them a chance to build on the good feelings from last Sunday, when Griese led a late 71-yard drive for the deciding score.

"I always think the first game is really important because it sets the tempo for the year," Denver Coach Mike Shanahan said. "People say it's just another game, but when you fall behind .500 in the first game of the year and you've prepared for it for six months, it's a little tougher."

Denver looked good, but the victory also contained controversy. Though Shanahan was ready to bench Griese for Steve Beuerlein after some third-quarter struggles, Griese stayed in the game. The Broncos hope he doesn't give Shanahan's trigger finger any cause to itch again.

The Broncos have seen Griese's talents when he's at his best, and they want him to play at that level all the time, not just when his job is in jeopardy.

"I'm kind of like a PR guy," Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "I'm kind of like Don King. I'm a hype guy. I make sure his confidence remains high. I said, 'Look, you're driving the bus right now.' Then, I told everybody, 'Brian's driving the bus right now, and we're all on it, and we're all going to ride on it unless [Shanahan] stops it.' "

Jeff Garcia has an intimate knowledge of the crisis of confidence that occurs when a coach doesn't believe in his quarterback. Just two seasons earlier, Garcia spent several weeks in a battle with Rick Mirer for the starting job, and Mariucci admitted several times the position was up in the air.

Garcia won the job emphatically, making the Pro Bowl after passing for a franchise-record 4,278 yards in 2000, but Mariucci's no-confidence vote was the cause of some friction between the two.

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