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SAN FRANCISCO - SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Battle of the Bay had plenty of empty preseason drama, keeping the bipartisan crowd enthralled until a sure touchdown pass bounced off Alvis Whitted's hands with 5 seconds left.
The most important developments in the 49ers' friendly rivalry game with Oakland were less theatrical. Daunte Culpepper looked ready to run the Raiders, but San Francisco put a good start and a better finish on its win.
Culpepper passed for 75 yards and threw touchdown passes to John Madsen and Zack Crockett before 49ers rookie Thomas Clayton scored on a 1-yard plunge with 47 seconds left in San Francisco's 26-21 preseason victory Saturday night.
"The struggles that go with preseason, I welcome them all, because it gives us something to work on," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said after his two backups quarterbacks each led second-half scoring drives. "I certainly don't want to go back on Monday and have nothing to work on, because they'll ask me to cancel practice."
Culpepper, the former Minnesota star who signed with the Raiders on July 31, made the biggest impression on a Candlestick Park crowd harmoniously split in its loyalties.
After a lost season in Miami, Culpepper is hoping to regain his Pro Bowl form with Oakland (1-1). He went 6-of-8, didn't throw an interception and even scrambled 13 yards for a first down while leading the Raiders to a 21-13 lead.
"I still have to get caught up," Culpepper said. "I'm months behind everybody with the terminology. I just have to continue to work at it. It just takes repetitions. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I'll be."
Except for two fumbled snaps by a quarterback well known for his butterfingers, Culpepper looked sharp against the 49ers (1-1) in a performance that should put him in the lead in his three-man derby with Andrew Walter and Josh McCown — and with No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell still apparently nowhere close to signing a contract.
"He's a dynamic competitor," said Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, back on the sideline after a midweek hospital stay with a viral infection. "We heard that about him, but now we see it out there. He's a guy that gets in there and wants to play."
But San Francisco jumped to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter, scoring on its first three drives while the Oakland offense floundered under Walter. After Culpepper put Oakland ahead in the third quarter, the Niners rallied in the final 17 minutes, capped by the decisive 70-yard TD drive under third-string quarterback Shaun Hill.
The Raiders then made a desperate final-minute drive with no timeouts, but veteran Whitted dropped a sure TD pass from McCown with 5 seconds left.
"I'm glad we didn't give up, and kept playing in the fourth quarter," said rookie linebacker Patrick Willis, who led the 49ers with eight tackles. "That's a big step for us, and that's what the preseason is for."
Alex Smith, the third-year pro and former No. 1 pick, again showed poise while playing the entire first half for San Francisco, going 8-of-12 for 106 yards and throwing a beautiful 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Delanie Walker.
LaMont Jordan rushed for 67 yards after missing the exhibition opener with a bad back, while Madsen also had a 44-yard reception in his bid to be the Raiders' starting tight end.
"If you have a game like we had tonight, of course you'll gain confidence," Jordan said. "We controlled the offensive line. We did a good job last week, but even better this week."
Still, the 49ers' defense limited Oakland's first-team offense despite playing without all three projected starters on its 3-4 defensive line. Bryant Young (back), Aubrayo Franklin (knee) and Marques Douglas (personal reasons) all missed the game.
Walter fumbled a shotgun snap on the Raiders' first possession for a 20-yard loss, and Travis Taylor dropped a well-thrown pass for a sure first down on the second possession. Oakland's third series ended with safety Mark Roman's interception, and Smith needed just two plays to find Walker for a score.
After Walter led a 17-play, 77-yard scoring drive, Culpepper entered the game in the second quarter and immediately fumbled his first snap — just as he did in his Oakland debut against Arizona last week. He fumbled another snap in the third quarter.
Notes: Raiders owner Al Davis watched the game from 49ers owner John York's private box. ... "There's no winner just yet" in the competitions on the right side of the 49ers' offensive line, Nolan said. RG David Baas and rookie RT Joe Staley looked good in their bids to unseat starters Justin Smiley — who committed consecutive holding penalties — and Kwame Harris. ... Joe Nedney kicked two long field goals for San Francisco.