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.

No comments: