Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Same As The Old Boss

The 49ers simply needed to win on Sunday in order to lock down their second consecutive NFC West title, but they also needed some help in order to get a much-needed bye from the first round of the playoffs. Though things started a bit slow, they managed to do their part, finishing their regular season with a 27-13 victory over the lowly Arizona Cardinals to finish 11-4-1, good enough to win that Division Title.

Though the end result was good, the game wasn't exactly the 49ers most sterling of efforts. A slow start saw the 49ers go 3-and-out on each of their first three possessions, while the Cardinals, behind 4th string Quarterback Brian Hoyer, parlayed a couple of drives into a couple of Field Goals, breaking in front 6-0. The 49ers appeared slow, as if they were still  hung over from the beating they took in Seattle last Sunday. David Akers, who'd already missed a troubling number of kicks this season, missed two more in the first half, calling his reliability into question. All this was troublesome, especially considering that if they somehow lost to Arizona, while Seattle beat the St. Louis Rams, the 49ers would go from Division Championship to playing a road playoff game next Weekend. I was also tuned in to the game on my phone, something that hasn't brought the 49ers much luck this season. If things got worse, I was seriously considering shutting things off out of superstition.

But with certain doom staring them in the face, the 49ers responded much as they have all season: by striking quickly and regaining control of the game. This time, it was a pair of passes from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree, which happened on consecutive plays and spanned 80 yards, giving the 49ers the lead in the blink of an eye and settling everyone down.

It's taken a few years, and Crabtree still gets somewhat lost in the shuffle among bigger names on other teams with flashier numbers, but Crabtree ended up with an incredibly underrated great season. He was already known as a great route runner with sure hands, but this season, he took The Leap into a clutch receiver who's been able to make the big play. It seems as though it's a regular occurrence that Crabtree is making a key catch to convert a 3rd down, or breaking a tackle and turning a short gain into a long one. Crabtree saved his best game of the season for the finale, catching 8 passes for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns, finishing the season with 85 catches, 1,105 yards and 9 touchdowns, all career bests. He also became the first 49er receiver since Terrell Owens 10 seasons ago to top 1,000 yards. Crabtree drew some heat for underperforming in the postseason last year. It appears likely that this won't happen again. He's clearly established himself as the best receiver on the team, and perhaps one of the top pass catchers in the league.

With the lead, the 49ers were once again able to do what they do best, control the clock and let their defense wreak some havoc, which they did. Even Akers righted himself, kicking a pair of Field Goals in the second half . Frank Gore got himself going on the ground, with an assist from LaMichael James, who has really impressed in the absence of Kendall Hunter, becoming a sparkplug on Special Teams and chipping in with several key runs. Crabtree's second touchdown, a beauty of a touch pass from Kaepernick, extended the lead, and Gore's score early in the 4th quarter sealed up the victory. Seattle had some trouble with the Rams, but although they emerged victorious, they'll be the ones going on the road for the Playoffs.

With the division now secured, the 49ers and I now turned our attention to the Green Bay Packers/Minnesota Vikings tilt. The 49ers needed a Packers loss in order to pick up that first round bye, and a sorely needed chance to rest and recuperate for the Playoffs. The Vikings, who knocked off the 49ers way back in Week 3, needed a win in order to simply make the Playoffs. The game was a study in contrast, between the Vikings Adrian Peterson running the ball down the Packers' throats and Aaron Rodgers passing at will. Ultimately, it was Peterson who would win the day, as his superhuman 199 yard effort paved the way for the Vikings to win on a last second Field Goal, getting them into the playoffs where they get to face the same Packers next Saturday while the 49ers get to watch and await the winner.

For the second year in a row, the 49ers have won their Division and managed to lock up the NFC's #2 seed in the playoffs. Last year, they got to the NFC Championship. This year, a team that now has that Playoff experience appears primed to hopefully make it further. They've had a much more uneven season than 2011, when they got hot and things just seemed to snowball from there. This year, they haven't had that really great hot streak. They've had good games, and certainly their big wins have made them feel much higher than last year. But they've also had some troubling losses as well, something they didn't see much of last year. Seattle's surging second half kept the division race much tighter than it was last year. Instead of being able to relax over the season's final few weeks, they had to play everything out to the last game before they had sewn everything up. It wasn't likely that they were going to roll off the same 13-3 record they had last year, and 11-4-1 isn't that much of a drop off. All things considered, it's nice to have put together 24 wins under Jim Harbaugh, and being the #2 seed in the NFC both years certainly puts them among the NFL's elite teams. Hopefully this year, they can finish the job.

So, the 49ers season will continue on Saturday night, January 12th, with a Home Playoff game in Prime Time in the Divisional round. Crazy things have been known to happen in the NFL Playoffs, but the odds seem to dictate that their most likely opponent will be the Green Bay Packers, against whom the 49ers started their season with a statement victory on their Home Field. Until then, they've got the week off, the injured can heal up and the remainder of the team, certainly weary from a 17-week grind can rejuvenate themselves and begin a march towards the franchise's 6th Super Bowl Title.

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