Monday, December 30, 2013

Only For The Tough

The 49ers found themselves faced with a number of different playoff scenarios as they went out to Arizona for their final game of the regular season. None of them involved the 49ers not making the playoffs, which was in stark contrast to the situation the Cardinals were facing, because they needed to a) Beat the 49ers and b) hope like hell that the New Orleans Saints somehow slipped up and lost at home to the Buccaneers. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, neither thing happened. The 49ers won a back-and-forth battle 23-20 on a last second Phil Dawson Field Goal, but long before the game was decided, the Saints had cruised to a blowout win over Tampa, making the game academic for the Cardinals. Then again, who cares about the Cardinals. With a win and a Seattle loss, the 49ers could have slipped in and stolen the NFC West title, which would have been quite a kick in the pants seeing as how Seattle has been regarded as the NFL's amphetamine darlings all season long. But Seattle's game wasn't in doubt either, so basically the 49ers were simply jockeying for position as a Wildcard team destined to go on the road for all their playoff games.

All that being said, the scenario seemed to matter very little to the 49ers, who looked like a team that just wanted to go out and play to win, and to their credit they did, heading off a Cardinals team that had been on a pretty good hot streak over the past several weeks, coming out of nowhere to make themselves contenders up to the final week. But the 49ers came out and attacked them from the outset, primarily behind Colin Kaepernick and Anquan Boldin. Boldin, who spent many seasons with the Cardinals, was making his first appearance at his former haunt since they dealt him away in 2009, and he looked like a guy who wanted to show his old team just what they were missing. Boldin ran up 149 yards receiving and one emphatic Touchdown, a majority of it coming in the 1st Quarter and on an electrifying 63-yard catch-and-run to set up a Vernon Davis Touchdown. The defense, behind Navorro Bowman's interception of Carson Palmer, hadn't done much and the end result was that the 49ers raced out to a 17-0 lead and appeared primed to wipe the Cardinals into oblivion.

But the Cardinals, in spite of the continued bad news they got on their own field and from New Orleans, kept fighting and kept the 49ers from extending their lead. Frank Gore and the 49ers rushing attack were pretty much bottled up, leaving the 49ers to solely rely on Kaepernick to move the ball. Though Kaepernick did have some success, netting his second 300+ yard game of the season, the 49ers drives mostly stalled, or, on one occasion, ended with Phil Dawson missing a short Field Goal attempt when Andy Lee's hold went awry. For a playoff tuneup, however, Kaepernick looked good, spreading the ball around with relative ease, working lesser-used receivers like Quinton Patton and Kassim Osgood into the mix, and even hitting Joe Staley for a gain on a Tackle-eligible play.

The defense bottled up the Arizona running game, which wasn't much of a challenge since Arizona's running backs don't appear to be very good, but after keeping him in check in the 1st Quarter, Carson Palmer caught fire over the rest of the game and kept moving Arizona into position to score. Fortunately, Arizona's kicker, Jay Feely, missed a pair of Field Goals, and stopped the Cardinals on 4th down on another occasion. But Palmer was able to keep the game close, and when he hit Andre Roberts on a 34-yard prayer with just over 3 minutes to play in the 4th Quarter, he'd managed to lead the Cardinals all the way back to tie the game at 17.

But, in a situation where nobody would have blamed the 49ers for just letting things lie, taking it easy and just preparing for next week, the 49ers warmed up again, with Kaepernick hitting Michael Crabtree and Boldin for long gains to set up Phil Dawson to hit a season-long 56-yard Field Goal, giving the 49ers a 20-17 lead with 1:45 to go. Undaunted, Palmer countered with a strong drive of his own, hitting Larry Fitzgerald and Rob Housler to move the Cardinals into position to potentially score a Touchdown and win the game, but Palmer couldn't get the Cardinals closer than the 30-yard line, and Feely re-tied the game with a Field Goal with :29 seconds left that seemed destined to send the game into Overtime.

But Kaepernick and the 49ers wanted no part of Overtime. After a strong kick return from LaMichael James (who continues to excel in this role), Kaepernick hit Boldin for one chunk of yards, and then hit Quinton Patton, who made a brilliant leaping catch to pick up another 29 yards, allowing the 49ers to call a Timeout with 2 seconds left, and send out Dawson to kick home the game-winning 40-yard Field Goal and send the 49ers on to the Playoffs with a wild 23-20 win.

Following the game, Jim Harbaugh told the team that where they were going was "Only for the Tough. But we have been toughened." The 49ers finished up the regular season winning their last 6 games to finish with a record 12-4, winning one more game than they did in 2012. But this season seemed to feel like more of a struggle for whatever reason. Maybe it was simply more of a struggle for their Quarterback, as Colin Kaepernick didn't light the league on fire like it seemed he would based on his success last year. He certainly wasn't a disappointment this season, but he was, at times, disappointing. He suffered with the loss of Crabtree and Mario Manningham (who once again is lost for the playoffs). There were games where the offense simply stagnated against tough defenses. Too often, drives stalled and Field Goals were settled for. Too often, the defense was leaned on to win games, and while they did a majority of the time, the offense would leave them with too slim a margin. But in the end, 12 wins speak for themselves. The 49ers for all their problems know how to win games and have drawn some much-deserved praise as a Championship Contender despite going into the Playoffs as a Wildcard team. And as a Wildcard team, the first order of business for the 49ers is the high pleasure of going to Green Bay next Sunday to take on the wonderful Packers, who squeaked into the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record after not having Aaron Rodgers for an extended period of time. Going into Doublecheck Lambeau Field in January is not for the faint of heart, but the 49ers have proven that they can not only handle the Packers in the Playoffs, but they can go on the road and win Playoff games. They did both of these things just last year en route to an NFC Championship. And this is what Jim Harbaugh meant. They have been through these tough Playoff games before. Experience may not guarantee victory, but it certainly can help a team play together and play smart, and these things will help the 49ers as they face a difficult, but not impossible, route through the Playoffs.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Stars Shine Brightest

It seemed fitting that the final game at venerable Candlestick Park would take place on the stage of Monday Night Football. Candlestick Park hosted more Monday Night Football games than any other, and it almost always featured some kind of memorable performance from one of the hosts. During the era of 49ers dominance in the 1980s and into the 1990s, it seemed like their best players always raised their game a little higher under the National spotlight. Since 1983, the 49ers hosted 29 Monday Night Football games (and a record 36 overall) and won an astonishing 22 of those games, and it usually included Jerry Rice stealing the show, or Joe Montana rising to the occasion, or Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley spearheading a defensive masterpiece, or Steve Young picking apart a defense. Recently, Frank Gore has shown a flair for this spotlight and Colin Kaepernick had his own coming out party last year on a Monday Night at Candlestick. Monday night, Candlestick Park went out with one final blast, as NaVorro Bowman saved the 49ers from certain disaster by intercepting a Matt Ryan pass with 1:10 to play and dashing 89 yards for a Touchdown to clinch not just a 34-24 victory, but also put the 49ers back in the playoffs.

Ostensibly, any sort of victory would have been satisfactory for the 49ers and their fans, but this game certainly ended up a bit hairier than they would have liked. Though this was certainly circled as a marquee matchup when the schedule was released, since the 49ers met, and beat, the Falcons last January in the NFC Championship game, the season took these teams in vastly different directions. Though the 49ers have, to this point, continued the success they've had under Jim Harbaugh, the Falcons have struggled, suffered through injuries and basically flopped (in spite of being mostly the same team that was a whisker of the Super Bowl last season), coming into the game a miserable 4-10 and looking only to spoil the 49ers party.

Early on, the Falcons certainly appeared ready to do some spoiling. Though the 49ers offense marched down the field on their first drive, with Colin Kaepernick hitting Anquan Boldin on a pair of passes (which put Boldin over 1,000 yards for the season in the process, a testament to how valuable he's been to the 49ers), the drive stalled when Kaepernick took a bit of a panic sack and the 49ers, as has been their wont, settled for a Phil Dawson Field Goal. Though the drive appeared to set a tone, it was really a false alarm, because that Field Goal ended up being the only consequential offense the 49ers would generate in the 1st half of the game. Atlanta Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, former head coach of the 49ers, dialed up some exotic blitzes and schemes designed to make Kaepernick uncomfortable, and for the most part it succeeded. He was throwing too early, or taking a sack, and generally the offense just stagnated.

In spite of the defense putting up their general solid effort, they still managed to let Atlanta sustain one drive when Ryan hit Drew Davis for a 59-yard gain on a 3rd down play early in the 2nd Quarter. This was simply a blown play. Davis sort of got lost in traffic in the middle of the field, but Ryan was able to hit him over the middle in front of Carlos Rogers, and Davis basically outran everyone most of the way down the field. This set up a Steven Jackson Touchdown (in spite of being on a different team, Jackson still seems to do it to the 49ers), giving Atlanta a 7-3 lead. The 49ers couldn't mount a response, and eventually Robert McClain broke a long punt return that set up a Falcons Field Goal as time expired in the half. The Falcons led 10-3 and this game was shaping up disastrously.

But the 49ers righted themselves in the second half. Aided by an egregious offsides penalty on Atlanta that helped extend the drive, the 49ers zipped down the field to start the 3rd Quarter, the drive capped off by a Boldin Touchdown and aided by a pair of clutch catches by Michael Crabtree, one of which went for 45 yards on a 3rd down play, and the second for 19 yards to set up Boldin's score. One drive later, the 49ers regained the lead on Dawson's second Field Goal, and one drive after that, Kaepernick scored himself on a 4-yard Quarterback Draw. All the while, the Falcons could do nothing, and so the game seemed to be fairly stable with the 49ers ahead 20-10 early in the 4th Quarter.

But the action was just beginning. The Falcons embarked on a painstakingly slow drive that appeared to be headed nowhere, until out of nowhere Ryan reared back and hit Roddy White on a long bomb for a 39-yard Touchdown that cut the lead to 3 with 8 and a half minutes to play. The 49ers, on their ensuing possession, set out to eat up some clock behind Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. The problem was, the Falcons defense proved themselves pretty much incapable of stopping the run, so instead of chewing up yards and killing the clock, Gore and Hunter pretty much ran wild, including a 45-yard run from Hunter that set up Gore to score on a 2-yard Touchdown, having used up only 3 minutes worth of time. Nonetheless, with 5 minutes to go and the 49ers ahead 27-17, it appeared unlikely that the Falcons could mount the necessary comeback and Frank Gore would, appropriately, go down as the man to score the last Touchdown at Candlestick Park.

That, however, was nowhere close to the reality. The Falcons, perhaps sensing the moment and an opportunity to prove they're better than their record might indicate, refused to fade into oblivion and mounted a spirited, hurry-up drive, with Ryan moving the Falcons down the field at will and eventually getting them within 3 when he hit Tony Gonzalez for a Touchdown with just over 2 minutes remaining. So, all the 49ers had to do was recover the onside kick, right? Sounds simple enough, but sometimes funny things happen. And a funny thing did happen when the kick sort of knuckled past NaVorro Bowman and bounced into no-man's land, where Jason Snelling recovered for the Falcons, putting them well within Field Goal range with 2 minutes to go and 3 Time Outs.

Now, this wasn't what anyone expected. All of a sudden, not only were the 49ers looking at potentially an Overtime game, but the Falcons certainly had enough time and weapons to score a Touchdown and win the game. This would have been a real kick in the ass to everyone expecting the 49ers to shut down the Falcons and close Candlestick Park in a blaze of glory. It was starting to look, to me, like the unmitigated disaster that was the Final Game at Shea Stadium. Ryan started the drive strong, hitting consecutive passes to move the Falcons down to the 49ers 10 yard line on a 2nd down and 1 play. But just when disaster seemed imminent, that old Candlestick Park Monday Night spirit showed itself one final time.

The 49ers blitzed Ryan on the next play, in an attempt to force him to throw a pass quicker than he would have liked, or, perhaps, sack him altogether. They didn't sack him, but his pass to Harry Douglas was quick and short, enough that Tramaine Brock was able to break up the pass and bat the ball away. This normally results in an incomplete pass, but for NaVorro Bowman flying in from the fray to pick the ball out of the air and dash in the other direction with nothing in front of him but open field and a convoy of 49ers behind him, ready to lead him into the end zone and leap on him when he got there. Bowman had blitzed on the play, but had ended up getting blocked out and lost in traffic. Unable to get to Ryan, he instead went after the ball, which was fortuitous since the ball ended up getting knocked practically right into his arms. Certainly, it was the right place at the right time for Bowman, but it's fitting that he would be the one to make the game-clinching play to close out Candlestick Park. He's been making big plays all season long. He may get overlooked next to Patrick Willis (and let's not overlook Willis in this game—he played like a man possessed all night, ending up with an absurd 18 tackles and generally disrupting everything all game), but he's become a major star in his own right, and making a play like this one further enhances his reputation as one of the NFL's best Linebackers.

This was the kind of game that the Final Game at Shea Stadium should have been. A great, Championship-quality effort that was punctuated with one of those magnificent plays that will live on in team lore forever. And the end result was that it put the team in the Playoffs. So the 49ers can rest a bit easier next Sunday when they go to play in Arizona against a Cardinals team that needs a win and some help to make the Playoffs. But a win would be in their best interest, not simply just to finish on a strong note, but, though it's a longshot, should the Rams beat the Seahawks in Seattle (a tall order indeed, but one that the Cardinals accomplished on Sunday) and the 49ers win, the 49ers would end up winning the Division and Candlestick Park would live on for one more game. To say nothing of how hilarious it would be if the 49ers ended up assing the Seahawks out at the final leg after the Seahawks have been considered an overwhelming favorite all season long. But that's not something that needs to be worried about until Sunday.

Monday, December 16, 2013

From The Ground Up

The 49ers have now played 14 games this season to the tune of a 10-4 record, which has been good enough to keep them in pretty solid playoff contention. But for a lot of the season, it seems like the 49ers hadn't really played up to their capabilities as a team. Their losses have been of the frustrating or baffling variety, where they've either lost close games due to the inability to make a key play or they were blown out simply because the other team wore them down. Every team will have losses like that, but many of their victories haven't exactly been clean games either. Most in the spotlight, naturally, has been Colin Kaepernick, who's been uneven in his first full season as starter. He's certainly shown flashes of the guy who took the league by storm and dominated the 2012 Playoffs, but he's also had plenty of moments where he looks like he's still trying to figure it out. As such, it seems as though Jim Harbaugh has dumbed the offense down somewhat in order to protect Kap. I mentioned this last week, but sometimes the offense has become too reliant on the running attack behind Frank Gore and company, and the result is that far too many times, the team has ended up settling for Field Goals (Fortunately, Phil Dawson's been on a roll on that front, a far cry from the roller coaster that was David Akers in 2012). This is all fine and good, but too many Field Goals and too few Touchdowns can come back to bite you in the ass. This was proven in the Carolina game last month, and it could have cost them the Seattle game last week were it not for an inspired run by Gore and an inspired effort by the Defense.

But Sunday's game in Tampa saw the 49ers open things up a bit more offensively. It's been said more often than I care to remember but only now does the 49ers offense feel complete again, with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham back in the fold to supplement Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. With these pieces together, Kaepernick seemed to have the shackles taken off and began slinging passes around with a bit more abandon than he'd done over a majority of the season. Though it certainly wasn't Kaepernick's best game statistically—he only completed 19 of 29 passes for 203 yards—it was the way he completed those passes that was impressive. The fact that he completed his first 6 passes was also nice; far too often it seems like he'd been starting games completing 2 of his first 9 passes and looking in a fog.

One need look at Kaepernick's two Touchdown passes to see just how different he looked in this game. His first, on the 49ers first drive of the game, went to Crabtree, who became the first 49ers not named Davis or Boldin to catch a Touchdown from Kaepernick this season. On a broken play, Kaepernick had rolled right, looking for Crabtree, who was trying to break away from tight coverage. After circling around and back towards the sideline, Crabtree finally had a step, and Kap threaded the needle just right, whistling a strike in to Crabtree for the score.

The second Touchdown was just pure strength, the kind of throw Kaepernick hasn't really even attempted this season. Early in the 2nd Quarter, Kaepernick took a deep shot at Vernon Davis, who was in single coverage with a Buccaneers Safety. Unfortunately, the pass was overthrown. One drive later, with the 49ers at their own 48 yard line, Harbaugh called the play once again. Kaepernick dropped back and rolled left, stepped up and launched a rocket, an absolute rainbow of a pass that traveled at least 60 yards in the air. This time, the pass was on target, and Davis caught it in stride for the score, his momentum carrying him through the end zone where he crashed into a guardrail. This was the kind of play that seemed to be missing from the 49ers arsenal this season.

These two scores in the first half sent the 49ers out to a 17-0 lead, but for at least part of the second half, they seemed to slip back into some bad habits offensively. The 49ers managed only a Field Goal in the 3rd Quarter and when Bucs QB Mike Glennon capped a 92-yard drive by hitting Tim Wright for a Touchdown on the 1st play of the 4th Quarter, Tampa had closed the deficit to 20-14 and all of a sudden a game that the 49ers had really had a handle on for most of the game seemed now quite dicey. But, as the 49ers have done on more than one occasion this season, they closed well in spite of some momentary lapses. On a drive comprised primarily behind the general fortitude of Frank Gore, the 49ers covered 77 yards in 17 plays (which also featured a key 3rd down conversion by Crabtree—something else the 49ers had really missed this season) that took 10 minutes off the clock and ended with, surprise surprise, Dawson's 3rd Field Goal of the day, getting the lead back to 9 points. Then, of course, the Bucs tried to get fancy on the ensuing kickoff, Eric Page made an ill-advised and ill-timed attempt to pass the ball off to Russell Shepard, Shepard never got a handle on the ball, fumbled and Kendall Hunter alertly jumped on the ball and rolled into the End Zone for what was essentially the clinching score. The Buccaneers then turned the ball over twice more in the final minutes, once on downs and once courtesy of Eric Reid's 4th Interception of the season, Dawson added a 4th FG and the 49ers ended up coasting out of Tampa with a 33-14 victory and a tighter grasp on a Playoff spot.

The 49ers now need to win one of their final two games, or see the Arizona Cardinals lose one of their last two games, in order to lock up a spot in the Playoffs. This seems a likely occurrence; Arizona is playing in the Horrordome in Seattle next week, while the 49ers host the Atlanta Falcons in a rematch of last season's NFC Championship game. In a testament to the fragility of NFL teams, the 49ers certainly appear primed for another deep playoff run, while the team they went on the road to beat to reach the Super Bowl last season has fallen into the abyss, rolling into San Francisco with a 4-10 record. The 49ers and Falcons will meet on Monday night, which means that the playoff question may be academic by time the game rolls around, but it seems fitting to play then. Monday's game will be the final game at venerable Candlestick Park, barring some unforeseen reversal of fortune in the Postseason that somehow ends up with the 49ers playing a Championship game at home. Candlestick Park, though generally reviled by both players and fans alike, has nonetheless been the site of a multitude of great moments over its history, particularly for the 49ers, and many of those moments came under the spotlight of Monday Night Football. It might not hold quite the same significance for me as when Shea Stadium closed (this should be obvious based on the fact that I went to 269 games at Shea Stadium as compared to none at Candlestick Park, even when the Giants played there), but nonetheless the stars will all be out to send Candlestick out in a blaze of glory.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Delusions Of Grandeurson

To state the obvious, the Curtis Granderson signing by itself won't make the Mets into a Playoff team. In fact, it's no sure thing that the signing will even make them a contending team right away. Granderson, who will be 33 on Opening Day of 2014, is coming off a season completely undercut by a pair of freak injuries, switching leagues for the first time and moving to a ballpark that's decidedly un-friendly to hitters.

And yet, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the move.

Skeptics seem to point to Granderson's signing potentially being another Jason Bay-type disaster, and for all we know, that could very well happen. Granderson's career arc doesn't necessarily posit that he's due for that kind of a serious dropoff (Unlike Jason Bay, I never referred to Granderson as an overglorified Gabe Kapler). First of all, Granderson actually seemed like he wanted to come to the Mets. Jason Bay seemed to come to the Mets because nobody else would take him. But it goes deeper than that. While playing most of his formative years in spacious Comerica Park, Granderson was a gap hitter who hit a lot of doubles and triples (his 23 in 2007 led the AL) and scored a lot of runs. When he moved to the cute little bandbox in the Bronx, those doubles and triples were suddenly flying out of the ballpark, which led to 41 and 43 Home Run seasons in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Nobody's hitting 40 Home Runs a season playing half their games in Citi Field, but a more likely scenario would see Granderson's Home Runs drop off and his doubles and triples increase again. Point is, he's used to simply hitting line drives, so the park factor won't fuck up his head the way it did to Bay.

Also, the specter of playing in the media vacuum that is New York can mess up some sensitive-types. Jason Bay came to New York after spending many years in Pittsburgh obscurity and surrounded by a galaxy of stars in Boston before coming to the Mets with the expectations of being The Man and rescuing the Mets from a down season (the fact that things were already too far gone is besides the point; we really hadn't accepted that as truth yet). After a slow start, he pressed and never recovered. Granderson arrives with the Mets having already spent 4 years playing in New York for that other team, so he's used to the basic craziness of the whole thing. Granderson is also one of those gregarious, outgoing types, who's more likely to fire back some witty retorts when faced with criticism. Additionally, Granderson is joining a team that's taking a step forward in rebuilding. He doesn't have to be The Man. He just has to do what he does and help make the players around him better. This is also something he's generally used to doing. He's not a savior and nobody is viewing him as such. Or, at least, they shouldn't be (the real savior is going to miss playing with Granderson for a year, assuming things go as planned).

Really, the best thing about the Granderson signing is that it happened at all. After about a month of Free Agency chatter and a tepid amount of player movement, the Mets fans were really starting to get restless. This was supposed to be the Offseason where things finally started to happen for the Mets to bring them out of this 5-year abyss. Nobody was amused by the Chris Young signing, particularly when, for a while there, it looked like that was all the Mets were going to do. But then the Granderson rumors picked up steam and finally it became official last Friday morning. Finally, the Mets had gone out and done something of consequence. It's been a long time since the Mets made a Free Agent signing of some note, and that it's someone that fans can really get behind makes it that much better. It means that the days of us Mets fans having to talk ourselves into the idea that somehow Shaun Marcum is a shrewd Free Agent pickup are (probably) finally over.

If anything, the Granderson deal is probably more like the Pedro Martinez signing back in 2005 as far as the statement it makes. Pedro was past his prime and probably signed for a year longer than the Mets should have given him, but they had to bring him in and they couldn't fuck it up. Once Pedro signed, and made it clear that this was where he wanted to be, other Free Agents saw that the Mets were serious about putting together a winning team and pretty soon, guys like Carlos Beltran, Billy Wagner and others were coming on board. Pedro didn't ultimately perform to the worth of his contract (though not for lack of effort), but no Mets fan can possibly think it was a bad move for how it eventually set the team up for success. Of course, that was fleeting success, but it was fun while it lasted, wasn't it? This is what the Mets are doing with the Granderson move. It's a 4-year contract, which will last until he's 37 and probably on the downside of his career, but that's irrelevant. The Mets are a big-market team and should be able to absorb a few bad contracts assuming the economics fall into place.

By signing Granderson, the Mets are finally making good on the promise they've continually made to their fans that 2014 would be the year things finally got better. By signing Granderson, the Mets are sending a message to other Free Agents that this is a team players want to come to (and Granderson said as much in his press conference Tuesday). They're sending the message that this 5-year journey through Hell is finally coming to an end and the team is going to get serious about winning once again. Granderson's effect on the Mets may not be obvious immediately, but in time, it will pay off.

Monday, December 9, 2013

No Surrender

There are, over the course of the blur that is the NFL season, games that you look at as times where your team really has to prove itself, especially if you're a team that aspires to contend for a Championship. Sunday was one of those games for the 49ers. The Seattle Seahawks, who for weeks have been stomping on opponents behind a suffocating defense and punishing running attack, and their NFL-best 11-1 record came to town looking to wrest the NFC West title from the hands of the 49ers and continue their cruise to the top seed in the NFC Playoffs. The Seahawks had already pasted the 49ers in their building back in Week 2, in a 29-3 victory that exposed just how good the Seahawks can be and just how many weaknesses the 49ers had. True, this was back in September, but since then, the Seahawks have rolled along like a freight train, while the 49ers have suffered through injuries, inconsistency and a series of confusing adjustments in offensive philosophy. The result was that by Week 14, when these teams met once again in San Francisco, it was the Seahawks firmly in command, while the 49ers were in a dogfight for a spot in the Playoffs, a bit of role reversal from last year, when it was the 49ers who were the alpha dog and the Seahawks the upstart.

The 49ers were, then, in a position where they could ill afford another loss to the Seahawks. Sure, they could have lost and and that would have been perfectly OK given how Seattle has been charging along. They could have easily recovered and still gone on to the playoffs. But given how handily the Seahawks had beaten the 49ers in their past two meetings, it would certainly not have helped the psyche of the 49ers, or of Colin Kaepernick, who had yet to beat his team's chief rival. But the 49ers rose up behind their own roaring home crowd and put forth an inspired team effort in a tense, tight slugfest that came down to the last minute, and ultimately prevailed with a 19-17 victory.

Unfortunately for me, after several of those odd weeks where the 49ers happened to be on in New York, this game was not on, pre-empted in favor of a mostly unwatchable Gnats game that was over at halftime. This, coupled with multiple prior engagements left me stuck following the game in fits and starts on my phone, periodically checking for updates and reacting accordingly as the game went back and forth.

The inconsistencies that have plagued the 49ers offense all season were once again at work, excusable as it may have been given that they were facing the league's #1 Defense, but nonetheless it seemed rather puzzling that the 49ers were able to move the ball reasonably well into Seattle territory only to settle for Field Goals from Phil Dawson. This was especially frustrating considering that the defense was playing at its usual stellar level, including a sack on Russell Wilson by Navorro Bowman, and a blocked punt by Kassim Osgood that set up the 49ers in great field position. Frank Gore couldn't get much of a toehold on the ground and Kaepernick found his receivers blanketed and ended up forced into useless checkdown passes to Bruce Miller that accomplished nothing. Not surprisingly, the inability to finish drives bit them in the ass when Marshawn Lynch bulldozed into the end zone early in the 2nd Quarter to give the Seahawks a 7-6 lead.

The 49ers did respond with another decent drive following the Seattle score, but much like the 49ers prior two possessions, it fizzled out and ended in another Dawson Field Goal. Kaepernick managed to thread a pass in to Anquan Boldin and ran for another first down, but the drive stalled when passes to Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham fell incomplete. Seattle responded with another Touchdown when Russell Wilson hit Luke Willson for a 39-yard score amid what was clearly a broken play. Somehow Willson ended up lost in traffic and Donte Whitner ended up whiffing on a tackle allowing Willson to scamper free for the score as Seattle took a 14-9 lead.

In desperate need of a Touchdown, not just a Field Goal, Kaepernick and the offense did respond with one just barely before halftime. The 49ers were helped by a holding penalty (one of several Seattle's juiced-up defensive backs would commit during this game) on Byron Maxwell, and Anquan Boldin out-wrestled Richard Sherman for a 27-yard gain which served to set up an 8-yard score from Vernon Davis with 10 seconds left in the half. This one was a beauty, a real bullet of a pass from Kaepernick over the middle to Davis, who caught the ball and more or less fell forward into the End Zone, giving the 49ers that elusive TD and a 16-14 halftime lead.

That, then, would be the extent of the real action-packed part of the game. The second half brought mostly dominant performances from both defenses. The 49ers had a golden opportunity midway through the 3rd Quarter. Kaepernick was finally beginning to find a rhythm, moving the 49ers into Seattle territory behind passes to Crabtree and Boldin. But with a chance to hit Crabtree for a score, Kaepernick instead underthrew his pass and saw it intercepted by Maxwell, snuffing out the drive. But Seattle could find no success either. Given a break on a taunting call on Whitner, the Seahawks handed the yardage back when Michael Robinson was called for a Facemask. The teams instead continued to trade punts and field position, and it became clear that it would take a major break for someone to be able to get into position for points. And it was Seattle that got that break when Golden Tate broke a long punt return with just over 9 minutes to play in the 4th Quarter, bringing the ball all the way down to the 49ers 27-yard line. Wilson then hit Jermaine Kearse to move the ball to the 15-yard line, but the Seahawks could get no further as the 49ers defense rose up when they needed to get the stop, keeping the Seahawks out of the End Zone and forcing them to settle for a Steven Hauschka Field Goal to give them their first lead of the 2nd Half at 17-16.

So, then, it came down to whether or not the 49ers had a response in them. They'd managed to move the ball reasonably well against Seattle, but couldn't seal the deal. And as the game wore on, Seattle's defense had been getting tougher. The 49ers took over with about 6 minutes left in the game and began what looked to be a slow, methodical march down the field, as Kaepernick hit Crabtree on a short pass and Bruce Miller converted a 3rd down. But just when it seemed like they would be creeping, all of a sudden Frank Gore delivered the haymaker. Gore took a 1st down handoff and ran through a nice lane into the Seattle secondary. But with Earl Thomas set to take Gore out, Gore then cut back and faked Thomas out of his shoes. By time Thomas recovered, Gore had bulldozed his way halfway down the field, not stopping until he eventually ran out of steam at the Seattle 18 yard line, a 51-yard gain that basically won the game for the 49ers. From there, the 49ers somewhat controversially decided to pound the ball and run down the clock, which included Kaepernick converting a key 3rd down on a QB Sweep. But in this situation, the strategy proved effective. Seattle was forced to use up their Timeouts and by time Dawson was set up for the Game-winning 22-yard Field Goal, there were only 26 seconds remaining for Seattle to attempt a counter-miracle. The Seahawks got a poor kickoff return and Wilson's desperation heave was intercepted by Eric Wright, sealing the 49ers victory and sending Candlestick Park into a frenzy.

This was far from the prettiest win that the 49ers have had this season. Then again, beauty doesn't matter in the NFL, so long as you do what's necessary to come away with the victory. And as I said before, it's important for the 49ers psyche to have beaten Seattle. Even if it's at home and not in Piped-Noise Arena in Seattle, it's still good to have a victory over the team with the best record in the league in your pocket. Especially considering that both teams appear to think that they'll be meeting again this season, in January in Seattle, with the stakes much higher.

But the 49ers have a lot of improvements to make if they want to realistically have a chance to beat Seattle in Seattle. The Saints, who have been great all season, went to Seattle last week and got their heads handed to them. The 49ers have had this annoying habit of putting the leash on Kaepernick at key moments, instead opting to run Gore, or Kendall Hunter, or LaMichael James, or Anthony Dixon into the line when they get the ball down inside their opponents' 20-yard line and more often than not, it ends up putting them in an impossible 3rd down situation and then, usually, a Field Goal. You can beat the Jaguars with Field Goals. You can beat the Redskins and the Titans, but if you expect to hang with the Big Boys, you can't kick Field Goals. The 49ers have been burned by this on multiple occasions this season, and only by the grace of Frank Gore did it not screw them again yesterday. It's true that Kaepernick has been hamstrung because of the injuries to Manningham and Crabtree. And it's also true that Manningham has been slow to re-establish himself in this offense and Crabtree is still trying to get his sea legs under him. But that's not a good enough excuse. Somehow, the leash has to come off Kaepernick. He's been handed this job and he's proven he can play with the best of them. He even won a playoff game on the road in a raucous dome that wanted his blood. True, this year has brought a good deal of growing pains, and he's proven that he has limitations as a pocket passer, but unless he's given the opportunity to get better, he's just going to continue making the same mistakes, taking too many sacks and desperately throwing checkdown passes to Bruce Miller.

So, yes, the 49ers have proven that they won't just capitulate to Seattle like a bunch of chumps. But if they think they've figured out how to beat the Seahawks consistently, they may be in for a rude awakening should they find themselves back in the Pacific Northwest in mid-January.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Kevin And The Gang

Sunday was another of those weird anomaly days (which have pleasantly occurred a few times this season) where the 49ers game ended up being on in New York. Even more pleasant was the fact that our good friend Kevin Burkhart was announcing the game on Fox. Burkhart's really blown up these past few months, after years toiling away for SNY and, prior to that, WFAN. It started with a few spots on Fox's Saturday game of the week, but now he's really hit the big time as an NFL announcer. He's done quite well, in spite of being relegated to mostly lesser games (though he seems to be garnering more important games than the horrible Chris Myers). Sunday's 49ers/Rams matchup wasn't exactly game-of-the-week material, but given how competitive the NFC West has been this season it certainly wasn't a dud.

So, Kevin and his crew were on hand for this one, and while it was a hotly contested game between two teams that don't like each other very much, the 49ers laid down the hammer behind a stifling defensive effort and the hurdling abilities of Vernon Davis to come away with a 23-13 victory and a season sweep of the Rams. The game started out with things being a little chippy as the 49ers purposefully held a team huddle in the middle of the field prior to the game, and penalty flags were thrown aplenty throughout the afternoon. After having such difficulty with the Rams last season, the 49ers probably couldn't have been blamed for really wanting to stick it to them this year, and they successfully did so in both meetings.

The Defense has ruled the day most of the season for the 49ers, and they certainly set the tone on Sunday. Ray McDonald sacked Kellen Clemens on the 2nd play of the game and things kind of continued on from there. The Rams ended up with 312 yards of offense, a majority of it accomplished late in the 4th Quarter when the game was well out of reach. Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman also sacked Clemens, Carlos Rogers intercepted a pass in the 4th Quarter and Anthony Dixon snuffed out an ill-timed and ill-advised fake punt, but in general, the 49ers defense just didn't allow the Rams offense any sort of headway for a majority of the game.

Offensively, Colin Kaepernick had one of his better days, which was probably because for the first time all season, he had his full complement of receivers at his disposal. Most welcome was the sight of Michael Crabtree making his season debut. Crabtree only made two receptions, one in his signature over-the-middle in-traffic fashion, and the second a breakaway go route that saw him run for close to 60 yards (and which he likely would have scored on had he been 100%), but the fact that he was back and in uniform was simply enough to generate good vibes. It may be a few weeks before he starts to make an impact again, given the severity of his Achilles injury, but having him back in the lineup is huge, particularly for Kaepernick.

Vernon Davis also had a standout game. His 4 receptions for 82 yards didn't lead the team in either count (that honor went to, who else, Anquan Boldin), but he did it in style. His second reception featured him catching an out route from Kaepernick and then proceeded to hurdle over defender Rodney McLeod en route to a much larger gain that set up a Field Goal. In the 4th Quarter, one play after the Rams botched their fake punt, Davis made them pay by catching a short pass from Kaepernick and again hurdling over defenders into the End Zone for the game-clinching TD. He also got tackled by the potatoes in the 3rd Quarter in a scene that should never be watched. Fortunately, he recovered from that unscathed, although as Burkhart said, "He may be singing Soprano for a while..."

So, after the panic button was about to be pressed, the 49ers recovered and have now won 2 games in a row, putting them at 8-4 and fairly solidly in control of a Wildcard spot. The Defense has been heroic all season and really paved the way for the 49ers 5-game winning streak earlier in the season and, for that matter, really didn't play badly in their 2 recent losses. The offense has been inconsistent, but with Crabtree now back in the fold, they may finally start to get some consistency. These things are important to note because, of course, next Sunday, the Seahawks, now 11-1, come to town to renew the NFL's most underrated rivalry. The Seahawks beat the 49ers back in Week 2 in Seattle and really embarrassed them in the process. It may not be a revenge game, but the 49ers can certainly make a statement and really bring some order to their playoff chances with a victory. And with both teams making the playoffs, it certainly seems possible that a third meeting could occur in January, with the stakes much higher.