The 49ers ended their season on a positive note, trouncing the Saints as if it was 1998.

Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia, and the defense looked sharp. The defense’s third shutout was the most in a single season for the franchise, and Garcia became the first 49ers QB with consecutive 30 touchdown seasons. Garrison Hearst is back, the 49ers are back, and the 2001 campaign cannot be considered anything less than a triumph – across the entire organization. The 49ers have laid the foundation for what will, hopefully, be a title team in the coming few years.

But the 2001 season is likely to be over next week. While the 49ers and their staff have been rewarded on the field for three year’s worth of wise drafting, superb coaching, and gutsy play, the NFL playoff system has treated them like war criminals in a medieval dungeon.

Despite having the best record of any of the teams playing next weekend, the 49ers inexplicably have the toughest game by far – on the road at Lambeau. In fact, it could be the toughest wildcard draw in history. The 49ers have the best record of any Wild Card team ever that had to play a road game in the first round.

I love this 49ers team, and I think we are capable of winning. But let’s just keep one thing in perspective: the Packers have never lost a playoff game at Lambeau Field. Repeat: NEVER. The 49ers not only have to deal with harsh conditions and arguably the greatest home field advantage in sports, they also have to deal with Brett Favre, the closest thing this organization has to a one-player nemesis. I don’t think Favre will roll over for us the way he did for Michael Strahan.

You would think that if the 49ers should pull an upset and defeat the Pack at home, they would be rewarded. But you’d be wrong. If the favored Eagles defeat the Bucs next week, the 49ers will travel to St. Louis, instead of Chicago, for their second playoff game. Despite having a worse record, despite having already lost to the 49ers, the playoff system favors the Eagles. The 49ers get Green Bay at home, then St. Louis at home. They have the two toughest matchups in the playoffs without even getting to the NFC Championship. Does that seem like a fair reward for the 49ers strides this year? Where’s the justice?!

I don’t care what anyone says: any team that beats the Packers at home and St. Louis at home in consecutive weeks in January deserves to skip the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl and be awarded the Vince Lombardi trophy by default. Screw everyone else.

What makes their bad luck even more infuriating is that it was the Cowboys who sent the 49ers to this fateful clash with the cheeseheads. The same Cowboys who lost to the Lions on Sunday. The 5-11, miserable Cowboys. Oh, the agony.

My Five Keys to Victory vs. Green Bay
1. Assassinate Brett Favre
2. Poison Brett Favre
3. Kidnap Brett Favre
4. Maim Brett Favre
5. Get the Terrell Owens involved early

The Saint’s Back to Being Aint’s?
As for the Saints, their recent collapse is due to the fact that they’ve been hit with the injury bug. Sure, they look healthy on the surface. That’s because all their marquee players are healthy: Laroi Glover, Joe Johnson, Aaron Brooks, Sammy Knight, Joe Horn, Ricky Williams, etc. It’s the second tier players who have taken the hits this year – and those are the players that do the little things to help you win. Guys like Kevin Mathis, Norman Hand, Cam Cleeland, and Willie Roaf.

However, the Saints have also played like real dogs the past two games after they were eliminated, and that falls on the coach. Jim Haslett did not get much from his players playing the pride card, which surprised me.

I have to admit that I really enjoyed Ricky Williams’ last fumble, which he fumbled and bobbled the ball all the way back to the one-yard line. He looked like a drunk guy chasing a handkerchief on a windy day at Candlestick. It was a classic Saint’s moment that brought back warm memories of the early nineties, early eighties, and late seventies. It surely will make the cut on the organization’s very crowded lowlights reel.

We’ll miss having you and your two easy wins in the division, New Orleans. Farewell.

Should 49ers Go 'Wide’ in the Draft?
The NFL Draft’s receiver crop received a boost on Saturday when Florida sophomore Jabar Gaffney announced that he would be leaving school to turn pro. If Texas sophomore stud Roy Williams and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Bryant both leave early, as many expect they will, and Gaffney’s stud teammate Reche Caldwell joins the fray, the receiver class in 2002 will be deep and talented.

The senior slate is already headlined by Michigan’s Marquise Walker, Florida State’s Javon Walker, Virginia Tech speedster Andre Davis, Utah’s Cliff Walker, LSU’s Josh Reed, and Georgia Tech’s Kelly Campbell. Of this impressive crew, Marquise Walker is the best pure receiver. With size, hands, toughness, experience and maturity, he would have the biggest impact as a rookie, though there’s a chance he will be off the board by the time the 49ers pick. He is a dependable #2 possession wideout that defenses have to respect, which is what the 49ers sorely lack. Unlike defensive line, the 49ers stand a good chance of getting maximum value with their late first rounder if they go with a wideout.

Expansion Draft
In the upcoming expansion draft, the 49ers must leave five players unprotected for the Houston Texans. After teams filled the last expansion draft (for Cleveland in 1999) with high salaried players, the NFL has announced that no more than two of the five players designated for the draft can have 'spiked’ salaries – which they define as a 2002 salary of at least $1.2 million and is a 75 percent increase over that players salary in 2001 (if I’m correct).

Some veteran players who could be on the list: J.J. Stokes, Terry Jackson, Greg Clark, Ronnie Heard, and Jonas Lewis.