"This is what everybody, God and country, has been waiting for."
At least the football populace, anyway.
Six days before the anniversary of Sept. 11 and nearly a year after they last visited the Meadowlands, the 49ers play the New York Giants tonight in the league's first nationally televised midweek season opener. The 8:30 start on ESPN will follow a 3 1/2 -hour music festival in Times Square that will feature Bon Jovi, Enrique Iglesias and Eve, among other performers.
The celebration will recognize and support New York City's Sept. 11 memorial events.
The last time the 49ers passed this way was Week 3 of the revised 2001 season, three weeks after the terrorist attacks. They outlasted the New York Jets, 19-17, in a game that launched their 12-4 playoff run.
"It was a very emotional and patriotic evening for all of us," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said in a conference call, "and we anticipate [tonight] being a little bit like that in some ways."
Giants coach Jim Fassel said his team was honored to participate in the unprecedented Thursday opener.
"We can certainly all remember what happened a year ago," he said. "I think New York and the country has rebounded very well from it. They are going to kick it off and have a big celebration over there [at Times Square]. I think it's healthy for the area and healthy for the country."
The 49ers return 20 of 22 starters from a team that lost a divisional playoff game at Green Bay and have aspirations of pushing deeper into the postseason. They have a quarterback (Jeff Garcia) who threw for 63 touchdowns the past two seasons, a running back (Garrison Hearst) who rushed for 1,206 yards after missing two seasons, and a defense that posted three shutouts a year ago.
Owens played a major role in last year's success with 93 catches for 1,412 yards and 16 touchdowns. In the off-season, he smoothed out his rocky relationship with Mariucci during a face-to-face meeting.
"I think we based our meeting on the lack of communication on both of our parts," Owens said. "But I think things have been going well so far. Not only that, I think the meeting kind of inspired me to have a better attitude."
The Giants needed more than a meeting to fix last year's problems. They made sweeping roster changes after going 7-9 and missed the playoffs one year after reaching the Super Bowl.
They have a quarterback (Kerry Collins) who fumbled a league-record 23 times last year, a running back (Tiki Barber) with a tender hamstring and a whole new kicking game.
This summer, the Giants cut punter Rodney Williams and replaced him with Matt Allen. This week, they placed kicker Owen Pochman on injured reserve with a knee injury and turned the job over to Matt Bryant, a 27-year-old rookie who last played for Baylor in 1998. Neither Allen nor Bryant has kicked in a regular-season NFL game.
The game will also mark the debut of tight end Jeremy Shockey, the Giants' first-round draft choice. Collins suggested that expectations for Shockey might be too high.
"I think we all might be guilty of that, including myself," he said.
San Francisco at N.Y. Giants
Time: 8:30, ESPN
Line: 49ers by 3
Outlook: The 49ers appear to have the edge, with an explosive offense led by QB Jeff Garcia, RB Garrison Hearst and WR Terrell Owens and a young defense that recorded three shutouts in the final six weeks of the 2001 season. In two seasons since replacing Steve Young, Garcia has thrown for 63 TDs and made the Pro Bowl twice. The Giants are hoping their offense will get a boost from rookie TE Jeremy Shockey, the first-round draft pick who was impressive in the preseason.
- From wire reports