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Their worst start in 31 years behind them, the San Fran 49ers are pinning their postseason hopes on an unlikely starting quarterback. The Tampa Bay Bucs also feel their young signal-caller can help them return to the NFL playoffs. Troy Smith is expected to make his third straight start for the 49ers on Sunday, when Josh Freeman will try to guide the Buccaneers to their first victory in San Francisco in 30 years. Since opening with five losses, San Francisco (3-6) has fought back into the NFC West race by winning three of four. Smith, signed six days before the 49ers' season opener, has been a major contributor during this turnaround.

A week after David Carr replaced the injured Alex Smith (separated shoulder) in a 23-20 loss at Carolina, coach Mike Singletary gave Troy Smith his first start with the 49ers -- and third of his career -- in an Oct. 31 matchup with Denver in London. He sparked a three-touchdown fourth quarter that helped San Francisco beat the Broncos 24-16, then threw a go-ahead TD to Michael Crabtree with 2:10 left in regulation last Sunday in a 23-20 overtime victory over St. Louis.

Smith has thrown for 552 yards -- including a career-high 356 against the Rams -- without a turnover in two starts. While Troy Smith has helped the 49ers move within two games of the West lead and inch closer to their first playoff appearance since 2002, Freeman has raised expectations for a franchise targeting its first postseason berth in three seasons.

Selected in the first round last year, the former Kansas State standout has led fourth-quarter comebacks in six of his nine career victories, and he has 12 TDs with just five interceptions this season. Freeman threw for 241 yards with two TDs and no interceptions in Sunday's 31-16 victory over Carolina, recording the best passer rating (134.2) of his career.

Freeman will try to help the Bucs (6-3) post their first victory in nine trips to San Francisco since Oct. 26, 1980, but he knows that will be a challenge against a 49ers defense that has limited its last four opponents to 322.0 yards and 17.0 points per game.



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