SAN FRANCISCO -- Coach Mike Singletary didn't have to beat the Washington Redskins to lose his interim tag with the San Francisco 49ers. He would have kept his job even if Joe Nedney's game-ending field goal hadn't sneaked between the uprights.
Yet Singletary just wouldn't have felt as much pride in his shiny new title without the 27-24 victory Sunday, which capped the 49ers' remarkable late-season surge: five wins in seven games with a new quarterback and a novel attitude.
After all, the long-struggling Niners hardly ever won close games against reputable opponents during the last six losing years -- until a Hall of Fame linebacker was put in charge of teaching them.
"I find myself in the middle of something, feeling very fortunate to be surrounded by all of the good people around me," said Singletary, who somehow found time to change into a suit in the few minutes between Nedney's kick and president Jed York's announcement. "Now it's just a matter of continuing to hype it up, continuing to move forward and keep our eyes on the vision that we have."
San Francisco finished 7-9 for the second time in three years, but went 5-4 overall under Singletary, who took over when Mike Nolan, his former boss, was fired Oct. 20. The 49ers haven't made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2002, yet Singletary managed to match their best record in that dismal stretch.
When York and general manager Scot McCloughan announced Singletary's fate to the players, the Candlestick Park locker room erupted in cheers.
"We know the right guy got the job," said Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, Singletary's prize pupil. "He brings the best out of us. It's just great chemistry."
Singletary, who got a four-year deal, also knew he wouldn't be making new business cards without the help of Shaun Hill, who coolly led a last-minute drive to set up Nedney's 39-yard kick as time expired.
Hill, the longtime backup quarterback whose promotion by Singletary clearly catalyzed the 49ers' improvements, went 21-for-30 for 245 yards, rushing for an early score and throwing a TD pass while remaining unbeaten in five games as a starter at home.
On that last drive after Jason Campbell pushed the Redskins to a tying score with 1:09 left, Hill hit Michael Robinson and Bryant Johnson with long passes before Nedney won it with his second field goal of the final minutes.
"It's like coach Singletary said all week: This isn't the end, this is the beginning," Hill said. "I think all of us believe that. We don't ever want to be done in December again."
There were similar feelings for Washington (8-8), which finished coach Jim Zorn's rookie year with four losses in five games. The Redskins made a 55-yard drive and tied it on Shaun Suisham's extra point after a 3-yard TD run on fourth down by Campbell -- but they left too much time for Hill.
Washington finished last in the NFC East after a 6-2 start.
"We put ourselves in a good position after the first half of the season," Campbell said. "We had an opportunity to try to win the division, and an opportunity to get a home game for the playoffs. We let it all slip away, and it's tough, it's tough."
Zorn could have been the first Washington rookie coach since George Allen in 1971 to finish with a winning record, but he couldn't build on the euphoria behind his club's quick start. Zorn's job is safe, according to top executive Vinny Cerrato, but other changes could be in store for his veteran-laden club.
"In the second half we just cracked open a window of opportunity, and certainly the 49ers took advantage of it," Zorn said. "We were frustrated a little bit, and then came back and tied it up. To not give up and to come back and keep the effort going, I couldn't be more proud of these guys."
Even before the Niners' postgame announcement, the back-and-forth game was more entertaining than many expected from two NFC clubs out of playoff contention. San Francisco went ahead 21-17 when Jason Hill scored on a 9-yard catch early in the fourth quarter, capping an 80-yard drive.
Nedney added a 33-yard field goal with 5:06 left, but Campbell quickly moved the Washington offense forward, picking up 23 yards on a scramble to the 10 right before the 2-minute warning. On fourth down from the 3, Campbell dropped back, but quickly slid through the middle to stretch the ball over the goal line for his first rushing touchdown of the season.
Frank Gore returned from a two-game injury absence to rush for 58 yards, wrapping up his franchise-record third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. DeShaun Foster played most of the game for his hobbled teammate, picking up 44 yards and a score.
"We showed a lot of mental toughness this season with the coaching change," Gore said. "We could have been in trouble or quit, but we didn't."
The 49ers wore their cherry-red-and-gold throwback uniforms. ... Niners S Michael Lewis left late in the first half with an injured left knee. ... Hill capped the Niners' opening drive with a 2-yard scoring run, flipping the ball to left guard David Baas for the celebratory spike.
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