Monday, January 21, 2013

Out Of The Fire

It is incredibly difficult to reach the Conference Championship Game in the NFL in any given year, let alone two years in a row. It's tough enough to get that far and then lose, and to lose it twice in a row is not only painful because of the work you put in as a team to get there, but because of the knowledge that all that work has gone for naught two years in a row. After making it to the NFC Championship Game last year, the 49ers, determined from day 1, made it all the way back to this game, amid the controversy of a midseason Quarterback switch designed to get them to this game and beyond. I mentioned on Friday that Jim Harbaugh went to Colin Kaepernick with an eye to getting them further than Alex Smith had last season. Sunday, Harbaugh got his vindication and the 49ers made it through to the Super Bowl with a spirited 28-24 victory on the road against the Atlanta Falcons.

That's not to say it was perfect, easy or very pretty at all. In order to win this one, Colin Kaepernick would have his mettle tested like never before, and the team would have to rally together to overcome a deficit in a hostile environment.

I anticipated a breathless day, and really, I was about as tense as I can ever remember being before a 49ers Playoff game. For as many years as I've been following this team and for as many Conference Championship games as they've made, it's never an easy game to wait for, and as I've grown older and learned to appreciate the fragility of the NFL season a bit more, it creates that much more tension. And then the game started and the 49ers got off to about as bad a start as you could have in a big game. The game started out frighteningly similar to the Seattle game a few weeks ago. Atlanta took the opening kickoff and Matt Ryan rocketed down the field, hitting his dangerous array of receivers like clockwork and keeping the 49ers instantly on their heels before striking Julio Jones for a 46-yard Touchdown. Both Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown appeared to get mixed up in coverage, and Jones was simply off to the races.

This wasn't so concerning. The 49ers were down last week against Green Bay and Kaepernick led them right back for a score immediately. But instead, the 49ers went 3 and out, the final play a pass to Vernon Davis that appeared on target, but was broken up by an Atlanta defender at the last minute. They punted the ball back to Atlanta and Ryan went to work right again, once again spreading the ball around between Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez in a drive that ended up in a Field Goal. Now, I was starting to get a little worried. After the 49ers went 3 and out again, I was concerned. And when Atlanta tore down the field again for another Touchdown in just 4 plays, I was beginning to Freak. The. Fuck. Out. Ryan was torching the Niners, they'd been outgained 182 to -2 in yardage, down 17-0 on the road and the crowd was bouncing off the walls, sensing the kill. The 49ers had made it all the way back to the NFC Championship, battled through a long season with all the crap they have to put up with only to get their doors blown off?

Was this really how it was going to go down?

The answer was a resounding no. Though the 49ers hadn't managed a damn thing in their first two possessions, it wasn't as though they'd looked especially bad. They just needed to find a rhythm on offense. Colin Kaepernick, who struggled so mightily with the noise on the road in Seattle, seemed calm and collected. Even in a raucous Georgia Dome, Kaepernick was poised. The 49ers consistently got to the line in plenty of time, Kaepernick appeared to go to a system of hand signals and movements to specific players in formation, and eventually the 49ers began to inch their way back into the game. When all the chips were down, Kaepernick got tough and led the 49ers down the field on a 11 play drive that ended with a LaMichael James Touchdown to get the 49ers on the board, get their defense some rest and restore some control.

But there was more to this drive than simply Kaepernick. It was what he did with the ball in his hand. Last week, Kaepernick picked the Packers apart using the deception of the read option to throw the Green Bay defenders onto the scent of a Running Back who didn't have the ball, or a receiver who wouldn't catch the ball, and instead running it himself. On Sunday, Kaepernick again ran the read option to perfection, only this time, with the Falcons charging off the edges to prevent him from running, he was instead handing off and letting Frank Gore or LaMichael James run up a generally vacated middle, or zipping passes around to Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Vernon Davis. On that first Touchdown drive, Kaepernick completed 5 consecutive passes before James scored on a nifty 15-yard run off the right end.

Finally rested, the 49ers defense was able to slow down Ryan and the Falcons, allowing one first down before stopping Atlanta and forcing a punt. The ensuing 49er drive was conceived much like the prior one, with Kaepernick spreading the ball around, only running once, for 23 yards, when an intended pass play started to break down. Kaepernick's preferred target on this drive was Vernon Davis, who caught a key pass for 19 yards on 2nd and long, and had another key catch for 25 yards to set up his 4-yard Touchdown grab that brought the 49ers back from 17-0 to 17-14. For Davis, who'd become a lost man in this Kaepernick-led offense, it was a re-emergence of a great player at the right time. Davis had been averaging a catch a game, startling for an elite Tight End who had been a favorite target of Alex Smith's. But he never complained, he never quit on plays, and today he found himself playing a major part of the 49ers comeback.

But with the Falcons now back on their heels, they responded from the 49ers charge with a perfectly executed 2-minute drill. Matt Ryan has made a name for himself for years being able to conduct this drill, and he put on a clinic once Atlanta got the ball back with 1:55 to go before halftime. Ryan covered 75 yards in just 1:30, hitting Tony Gonzalez in the end zone for a huge Touchdown right before halftime to get Atlanta's lead back to 10 points at 24-14, and perhaps restoring some order to a game that clearly wasn't going to be as easy for them as the first 15+ minutes had appeared. The 49ers kneeled on the ball to end the half, but clearly this was going to be anyone's game. Kaepernick proved himself unfazed. The key was whether or not the 49ers defense could slow down Ryan, keep Atlanta off the scoreboard and perhaps force a couple of turnovers.

By all accounts, the answer would be yes, though much like the whole of the game it wouldn't be very pretty. Unless it involved Colin Kaepernick. Then, it was downright gorgeous.

Kaepernick started the second half of the game right where he left off with the first half, by attacking the Falcons with a series of precision passes, most of which came on 1st and 2nd down, leaving the 49ers with manageable, short-yardage situations that were easily picked up by Gore and James. Kaepernick hit Randy Moss on a pair of long passes, setting up a 5-yard Touchdown from Frank Gore, cutting the Atlanta lead back to 3 and putting the pressure squarely back on Matt Ryan to make a big play.

The following sequence involved a steep shift in momentum that might have broken a lesser team, but the 49ers proved that on this day, though they might have bent, nothing was going to break them.

Ryan began to smartly move the Falcons down the field, as he had all day. The 49ers defensive line, that was eventually able to wear down the Packers front and get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, was having no such luck against the Falcons. Ryan consistently found himself with plenty of time, so the only hope for the 49ers defense was if they could just get him to make a mistake...which he did with just over 7 minutes to play in the 3rd Quarter. Roddy White slipped while running a short pass route just inside the San Francisco 40 yard line, and Chris Culliver stepped in front of him to pick off the pass. It was the key play the 49ers were looking for on defense and set up Kaepernick and the offense with a chance to at least tie and possibly take the lead. Kaepernick immediately responded with a long strike to Vernon Davis, immediately setting up the 49ers in Field Goal range. Kaepernick's second, and last, run of the day netted -2 yards, and ultimately David Akers came out for an eminently makeable 38 yard Field Goal attempt. But, Akers has been a liability this year, and there really hasn't been a better option to replace him (another kicker, Billy Cundiff, was signed and then released during the playoffs without ever being used), and this bit the 49ers in the ass when his kick clanged off the top of the upright and bounced backward, no good, and keeping the game at 24-21.

With a chance to grab the momentum back, Ryan again got Atlanta moving on offense, but his fine drive once again short-circuited when he took his eyes off a snap just inside San Francisco's 30 yard line. Ryan never got a handle on the ball and lost it. Aldon Smith, who had intended to blitz, alertly jumped on the loose ball, giving the 49ers yet another chance to grab the lead. Once again, Kaepernick put the 49ers in position to score, this time firing the key strike to Michael Crabtree to put the 49ers in position. At the Atlanta 5, Kaepernick hit Crabtree on a slant, the same play on which Crabtree scored 1 of his two touchdowns last weekend. Crabtree was met by a pair of Falcon defenders at the 1, and when he struggled to try to reach the ball into the end zone, one of them managed to knock the ball out of his hands for a devastating Fumble that Atlanta recovered. Once again, the 49ers had a golden opportunity to grab a lead go by the wayside. This was most frustrating, because you knew the 49ers weren't going to get many more chances like that, and Ryan had been hot all day.

But, taking over at his own 1-yard line, Ryan couldn't move the Falcons out of their end, resulting in their first 3-and-out of the game. Ted Ginn, Jr, conspicuously unavailable in last year's Championship game, got his hands on the punt and got a good return well inside Atlanta territory. With one more opportunity, Kaepernick and Frank Gore made sure to finish the drive this time. In a drive mostly conceived on the ground, Gore, James and Anthony Dixon pounded out the necessary yards, with a short pass to Crabtree mixed in, culminating with Gore's second Touchdown of the game, from 9 yards out, giving the 49ers the 28-24 lead they'd been chasing all second half with 8:23 to play. Upon reaching the end zone, Gore began mocking Atlanta fans by starting to do the old "Dirty Bird" dance, before giving up and waving everyone off. But it would be fitting that on this day, Frank Gore, the old veteran and one of the last holdovers from a really dark era of 49ers Football, would get the Touchdown that put the 49ers ahead to stay.

They still had to stop Atlanta one more time, though. With 8 minutes left, Matt Ryan had loads of time with which to work, and work he did, slowly moving the Falcons down the field, spreading the ball around as he did all game. The 49ers still had little luck getting much pressure on Ryan, and he spread the ball around as the clock ticked down. The 49ers caught a break when Harry Douglas slipped while catching—or not catching—a pass when Carlos Rogers had fallen down in coverage. With under 2 minutes left, the Falcons had worked themselves down to the 49ers 16-yard line. On 2nd down, Ryan hit Jason Snelling for a 5-yard gain, but when he released the ball, Ahmad Brooks hit him, then landed on him, separating his non-throwing shoulder. In pain but undaunted, Ryan got back to the line. His 3rd down pass was intended for Roddy White, who seemed primed to score had Ahmad Brooks not batted the pass away.

So it came down to one last play, on 4th down. Ryan  looked for White again, over the middle. But his pass was behind White, who may or may not have been held by NaVorro Bowman, and Bowman knocked the pass down. I leapt out of my chair and started jumping around the room, which startled the cat a bit. Rejoice! Maybe...Not yet...There was still 1:09 to go, and Atlanta still had two Timeouts. The 49ers couldn't run it out just yet. And they didn't, because after doing such a masterful job of working through the crowd noise, only now did Kaepernick commit a Delay of Game penalty. Gore got some of the yards back, but the 49ers still had to punt with :13 seconds left. But an injured Ryan couldn't get much on his desperation pass, and Julio Jones was tackled before he could start a circus lateral play. The clock finally hit :00. The 49ers had finally broken through! Finally! Back to the Super Bowl!

The postgame was the predictable elation. Jim Harbaugh disappeared, deferring the moment to his players. Eddie DeBartolo, the great former owner of the 49ers, handed the George Halas trophy off to his nephew, current owner John York. Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore and Patrick Willis did some interviews—what they said, I couldn't tell you, I was busy reveling—and at some point I guess the other game had started, but I didn't care. How could you not be happy for guys like Gore and Willis and Davis, who played for years on teams that did nothing? After the game, after everyone left, Gore was still walking around the field, drinking it all in. He knows what this is all about. I've rode with the 49ers for a long time, just about as long as I've been with the Mets. Most of the 49ers glory years came when I was young and they were in these games on a regular basis. It's taken several down years, several years where the 49ers were being humbled and embarrassed, through  years of coaching changes and coordinator changes, and the revolving door of bad Free Agent signings and draft picks that never panned out to finally get back to this moment, where the 49ers had a chance to recapture those great glory days of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott and all the other great names, and add some of the names from this era to that list of luminaries. And in two weeks, they'll have their chance.

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