They’ll meet Saturday night when the 49ers host the Bengals in a matchup of teams eliminated from postseason contention.
San Francisco won Super Bowls over Cincinnati in 1982 and 1990, but 2007 has clearly been a year to forget for both franchises.
The dismal year for the 49ers (3-10) took a turn for the worse when news broke this week of a reported rift between coach Mike Nolan and quarterback Alex Smith, who separated his shoulder in a loss to Seattle on Sept. 30 and hasn’t played since another loss to the Seahawks on Nov. 12.
Smith criticized Nolan in comments to the San Jose Mercury News on Monday, just hours before he opted to undergo season-ending surgery on the shoulder. Smith said Nolan had tried to “undermine” him in the locker room, telling players the top overall pick in the 2005 draft was using his injuries as an excuse for poor play.
The two met Tuesday and Smith apologized to his teammates on Wednesday for creating a distraction. Nolan, who is 14-31 in his third season with the 49ers, said he wants to put the drama behind him.
“I really don’t feel it,” Nolan said. “You don’t want the truth to stand in the way of a good story, but I’m just telling you there’s nothing between us.”
Smith also attempted to downplay his comments from Monday.
“It was a brief exchange,” he said. “I initially reacted out of frustration based on the questions that were being asked, but the article does not reflect how I truly feel.”
With backup-turned-starter Trent Dilfer suffering a concussion in last week’s 27-7 loss to Minnesota, Shaun Hill will make his first career start Saturday. The 49ers also signed Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke on Wednesday to serve as Hill’s backup.
Hill completed 22-of-27 passes for 181 yards and one touchdown in relief of Dilfer, but the 49ers failed to overcome five turnovers in their fifth straight home loss.
“I thought Shaun Hill gave us a spark in the second half coming in, did a nice job moving the ball down, we got a score,” Nolan said. “But again, we did turn the ball over I think three times since after he came in.”
Cincinnati (5-8) can relate to San Francisco’s difficulties.
The Bengals endured controversy earlier this season when Carson Palmer was forced to apologize to teammate Chad Johnson for yelling at the receiver during an Oct. 1 loss at New England. It’s been a rough 2007 season for Palmer, who has 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions - one shy of his career high set as a rookie three years earlier.
“At this position and with where we are as a team, I need to play great every week, and I haven’t been great every week,” Palmer said. “As far as I’m concerned, I just want to give us a chance to win.
“Of course, I want to throw a bunch of touchdown passes and throw the ball all over the field, but at this point in the year with where we’re at, we need wins.”
The Bengals’ bigger problems have been on defense, but they’ve shown signs of improving recently. They did not allow a touchdown for the second time in three weeks in a 19-10 win over St. Louis on Sunday.
Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis blamed no one other than his own team for being eliminated from postseason play for the 16th time in 17 seasons.
“We put ourselves in this situation,” he said. “It shows how important each and every win is. There are some games that we probably should have won and had not won that is a big difference in this situation.”
The Bengals’ much-maligned pass defense has yielded 24 touchdowns through the air to rank third-worst in the league in that department. However, Cincinnati also took advantage of facing inexperienced Brock Berlin last week and get to see Hill on Saturday.
This is the Bengals’ first visit to San Francisco since 1996, and they have lost their last four games there since a 21-3 win in 1974. Cincinnati scored an average of 42.5 points in winning its last two home matchups with San Francisco in 1999 and 2003.
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