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.

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