Monday, September 17, 2012

One Step Ahead

The NFL has its own version of The Biggest Game In The Galaxy, which is, of course, a game that's generally slightly overhyped, overspun and overproduced. It used to be Monday Night Football, but that was back in an era when these things were a bit more pure, in the era of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith, until Hank Williams, Jr. arrived on the scene and the phrase "ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL!!" entered the American Lexicon. Since then, the NFL decided to make that Biggest Game In The Galaxy into a Sunday Night affair, with Monday Nights being given less credence, shoved off to ESPN with matchups less appealing. I've never been much of a fan of Sunday Night as the Big Game, it seems to me that Monday always made more sense, but I digress. Part of the reason I feel this way is because of the innumerable times the 49ers appeared on MNF, when their great players always seemed to play their greatest.

But over the past number of years, the 49ers hadn't appeared on a Prime Time game very much at all. Since The Biggest Game In The Galaxy was moved to Sunday Nights, the 49ers had appeared on SNF but once, an embarrassing loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in which Alex Smith was booed off the field and Candlestick Park chanted for his backup. Times have changed since then. The 49ers are now scheduled to appear on The Biggest Game In The Galaxy more than once this season, the first being last night, and the atmosphere may as well have been an Alex Smith Love-Fest.

There was a lot to like about the old ABC Monday Night Football, and NBC's attempt to replicate this for Sunday Nights is part of the problem they've created. First, is the start time. NBC now runs a pregame show that's a bit disjointed, starts well before the 4pm games have ended and runs way too long. It also knocked ESPN's NFL Primetime, off the air (even if you dislike Chris Berman, you couldn't not enjoy NFL Primetime). This pregame show features very little pregame (about 10 minutes out of 90 appears to be devoted to the game you're about to watch) and a lot more show, culminating in the completely emasculating opening theme from Faith Hill. I don't know who this is catering to, exactly, but nothing puts me less in the mood to watch football than Faith Hill butchering Joan Jett over video clips of the NFL's favorite masturbatory obsessions: The Green Bay Packers and Ray Lewis dancing.

After all the ceremonial crotch-grabbing, we're finally ready for a game here, and for the 49ers, a chance to show the nation that last week's resounding victory over Green Bay was no fluke. Facing the Detroit Lions, a lesser but still capable opponent, the 49ers wouldn't have to be perfect to win. They certainly played a less than perfect game, but were still able to come away with a 27-19 victory, buoyed mainly by another outstanding performance from their defense, and a pair of clutch drives, one very early, one very late, from the Offense, each culminating in a Vernon Davis touchdown.

The Lions, still a team in their formative years as far as their roster goes, boast a pair of exceptional talents in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, and the 49ers game plan appeared to be to keep them as under wraps as possible, and dare them to try to run the football. This formula seemed to work to a tee. Faced with a short-and-long coverage scheme, Stafford could not hit Johnson for long passes, only short, and every time he hit Johnson short, it was generally right in position for him to immediately get belted by either Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman. The Lions run game had a similar problem. They could make short gains, but not long ones. The result was that while the Lions has some sustained drives, they inevitably stalled out and Detroit had to settle for a series of Field Goals. Not until the game was out of reach did the Lions manage to move the ball inside the 49ers 10-yard line. Too little, too late.

The offense started out gangbusters, ripping right down the field on their first drive for a quick touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis, giving the 49ers an early lead about 3 minutes into the game. But following that, the offense seemed to stagnate a bit. They were off the field for a while, as a Special Teams fumble from Kendall Hunter was sandwiched between a pair of Detroit Field Goals. But, given a short field following a Dashon Goldson interception, the 49ers marched down the field, caught a break when a Detroit defender was penalized for Running into the Kicker on a Field Goal, and eventually, Frank Gore punched the ball into the End Zone. But mostly, the 49ers offense did no better than Detroit's, starting off drives nicely, but only managing to kick Field Goals, of which David Akers had two. One particularly frustrating instance had Alex Smith with a first down well in Detroit territory, and three perfect passes to three separate receivers were all dropped.

But, after a Lions Field Goal with 9:20 to play in the 4th Quarter cut the 49ers lead to 20-12, the 49ers set out on a drive that paid homage to one of the NFL's great adages: "Great players aren't always great, they're just great when they have to be." Starting at their own 21-yard line, the 49ers chewed up yardage and the clock, as they moved smartly down the field. The way Alex Smith played on this drive made that miserable night in 2010 seem a distant memory. On three separate instances, the 49ers were faced with a 3rd down play with at least 7 yards to go for a 1st down. Each time, Smith effortlessly hit Michael Crabtree with enough space for Crabtree to make the necessary moves for a 1st down. Smith also took a shot on the face on a play where he was forced to scramble. Smith got up, bloodied but unfazed, hit Crabtree on the next play, and two plays later, with blood streaming down his nose, hit Vernon Davis, who outran several defenders into the end zone for the game-clinching score.

So the 49ers kick off their season winning a pair of games against teams that made the Playoffs last season. Last night's victory was not the impressive, resounding victory that the win over Green Bay was, but I'll still take it nonetheless. If the 49ers can go out against a good team, and play less than their best for a majority of the game, and still come away with a victory, you can't help but feel good about it. You get the feeling that the 49ers can win a lot of games playing the way they have so far this season.

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