Monday, January 6, 2014

Cold Heart

Although the temperature wasn't as historically cold as people expected, it was still pretty cold in Green Bay on Sunday, at 3˚ with a wind chill of -14˚. This mattered very little to the 49ers, who stormed out behind their hearty, sleeveless Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and beat the Green Bay Packers 23-20 to advance to the Divisional round of the NFC Playoffs. In spite of the cold, and in spite of playing on a gnarly looking "frozen tundra" that appeared to be comprised of either dead grass or painted dirt, the 49ers played mostly unfazed and stood toe-to-toe with the Packers, ultimately prevailing on Phil Dawson's last-second Field Goal.

It's Kaepernick who's drawing all the attention after this game, and deservedly so, since it was his 227 passing yards and 98 rushing yards that served as The Difference in the game. Kaepernick did what he tends to do in situations like this: raise his game to the magnitude of the moment. Stating after the game that "It ain't that cold, it's all mental," Kaepernick once again proved himself too difficult for the Packers to stop and although he might not have lit them on fire like he usually does, he still outplayed Aaron Rodgers and made several clutch plays in key moments to set up the 49ers to win.

That being said, Rodgers has to get some credit for simply dragging the Packers back into the game, because early on, it looked like the 49ers were going to run them out of their own building. After forcing a Green Bay punt on the opening possession, the 49ers raced down the field, with Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree hooking up for a majority of the yardage, including a 31-yard catch on a 4th down play that set up a Dawson Field Goal. The Packers did nothing on their ensuing possession, again going 3-and-out, aided by a sack split between Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith. The 49ers took advantage of a bad punt by Tom Masthay and began their second possession in Packers' territory. And again, they drove down inside the Packers' 10-yard line, this time with Anquan Boldin picking up the key yards. But again, the drive stalled and resulted in another Field Goal. This, annoyingly, had been a problem all season, and I was concerned that settling for Field Goals when for all intents and purposes the 49ers had completely dominated the game and shown themselves to be playing on a completely different level than the Packers. But these things change quickly in the NFL, and all it can take is one play sometimes to turn the tide.

The Packers eventually did get their break, but only after a 3rd drive that saw Rodgers get sacked and the Packers go 3-and-out. The 49ers began another march down the field and appeared primed to score again, until Kaepernick made what was really his only bad throw of the game, an underthrown pass to Vernon Davis, who'd broken free near the Packers' 10 yard line, that was intercepted by Tramon Williams. This stopped the 49ers and energized the Packers and Rodgers, who methodically moved down the field in a mostly no-huddle attack comprised around short passes and runs by Eddie Lacy. The 14 play drive culminated in a Touchdown pass from Rodgers to Jordy Nelson that was nearly knocked down by Tarell Brown. But Brown whiffed and out of nowhere the Packers had the lead and served notice that this game wasn't going to be anything close to the cakewalk it had started out looking like.

That being said, for every time the Packers forged downfield for a score that gave them the lead, the 49ers always found a way to come up with the clutch response. Naturally, it was Kaepernick who made the big play, this time using his legs and simply outrunning a majority of the Green Bay defense. It wasn't a designed run—and it's easy to overlook that many of his runs against the Packers aren't designed—but nonetheless, he took advantage of the Packers defense playing man coverage and not leaving a defender to spy on him and took off, racing around the left end and not stopping until he'd made it all the way down to the Packers' 13-yard line. The 42-yard run set up Frank Gore to plow through the middle and score on a 10-yard run two plays later as the 49ers regained the lead 13-7. On their ensuing possession, the Packers drove down quickly to kick a Field Goal as time expired in the half.

The intensity kicked up significantly in the second half. Neither team did much in the way of offense in the 3rd Quarter. The 49ers kicked off the half by burning a Time Out before running their first play. This set a negative tone as the 49ers had the ball 3 times in the Quarter and punted all 3 times. They did manage to move the ball their second possession, as Kaepernick hit Crabtree again for a big gain, but two plays later, Kaepernick took an ugly sack from Nick Perry, who took it upon himself to flex his muscles (in the absence of Semi-talented Commercial Actor and rumored Football Player Clay Matthews, III, I guess Perry had to compensate for idiot Packer behavior) and style after doing so. Fortunately, the 49ers defense was just as hearty; the Packers generated very little themselves, and one drive saw the 49ers sack Rodgers on back-to-back plays, courtesy of Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks.

It wasn't until the 4th Quarter that someone finally broke through. Unfortunately, it was the Packers. Rodgers had begun to heat up again late in the 3rd Quarter, and with the Packers facing a 4th Down at the San Francisco 30 yard line, their coach, Mike McCarthy, eschewed the tying Field Goal in favor of going for the jugular. This nearly blew up in his face, as Ray McDonald appeared to have Rodgers grasped for a sack. But somehow, Rodgers managed to keep his feet, break the tackle and escape long enough to loft a miracle pass to Randall Cobb, who landed inside the 49ers 10-yard line. This, then, would be the kind of play that showed Rodgers' greatness at work, and could easily have been a backbreaker for the 49ers, particularly when John Kuhn plunged in for a Touchdown a few plays later that gave the Packers a 17-13 lead.

Potentially backbreaking, yes, but fortunately, not actually backbreaking for the 49ers. After seemingly losing all momentum, the 49ers just went out and grabbed it right back, thanks once again to Colin Kaepernick, with assists from Vernon Davis and LaMichael James. It was James, who shined as a return man and change-of-pace back last Postseason, who kicked things off with a long Kickoff return that gave the 49ers good Field Position. Then, it was Kaepernick, doing it with his legs again and taking off on another busted play for a 24-yard gain, moving the ball well inside Packer territory. One play later, Kaepernick whistled one of his bullet passes over the middle of the field to Davis, who caught the ball in between a pair of defenders and landed in the End Zone for a Touchdown that gave the 49ers the lead right back. Once again, when they were absolutely in need of the score, the 49ers went out and got it.

It was clear, at this point, that this game was going to continue to go back and forth, and it would be decided either by the team that had the ball last, or the team that made a mistake. The Packers took the ball and embarked on a good drive that appeared primed to end in the End Zone once again, but the 49ers defense stopped them cold inside the 10. Mason Crosby's Field Goal tied the game 20-20 with 5:06 to play. So, that gave the 49ers a pretty easy task: Take the ball, move down the field, run down the clock, score and get the hell out of there.

Of course, it's never that easy.

Kaepernick opened the drive by hitting Crabtree for 11 yards. Two plays later, a touch pass intended for Davis nearly ended in Disaster as Micah Hyde got his hands on the pass, but was unable to intercept it, which was fortunate, because he had nothing in front of him but open field. Faced with a 3rd down on the ensuing play, Kaepernick went back to his old reliable target, Michael Crabtree, for 17 yards and a 1st Down. Crabtree, who's made a name for himself as a top-flight route-runner with outstanding hands, showed in this game just how much the 49ers missed having him in the lineup over the early part of the season. For the game, Crabtree had 8 catches for 125 yards, which obviously was his best output of the season, and he couldn't have picked a better time to do it. Kaepernick has relied on him on 3rd down continuously, just as Alex Smith did before him, and here as the 49ers were trying to move towards a victory, Crabtree came up big once again.

But there was still more ground to gain, and a few plays later, the 49ers found themselves in another 3rd and long situation, this time at the Green Bay 38 yard line. Certainly, a pass was the call, and certainly, Crabtree would be the preferred target. But if it didn't work, it was certainly too far away for Phil Dawson to be counted on to kick the Field Goal, and with just over a minute to play, too much time to just hand the ball back to Aaron Rodgers. Kaepernick dropped back to pass and the Packers came with a blitz. But in their zeal to get to Kaepernick, the Packers overpursued him, allowing Kap to race around the corner and pick up those key 8 yards and then a few more, moving the ball closer, and allowing the 49ers to run the clock down even further behind some Frank Gore runs, setting up Phil Dawson to kick home a 33-yard Field Goal and send the 49ers on to play the Carolina Panthers next weekend.

Naturally, the mood after the game was that the team immediately wanted to run in and get out of the cold. Ultimately, the better team won the game, although it wasn't the 49ers cleanest effort. Certainly, the weather was a factor, but habits that have annoyingly formed over the course of the season showed themselves, particularly early when the 49ers couldn't finish off their drives. Unlike in prior games, this wasn't a product of play calling. Kaepernick was afforded the ability to score with his arm in these situations on Sunday, but the receivers weren't there for him, and a lane for him to run didn't exist. Clock management was also a problem, as the 49ers burned two Timeouts in the 1st Quarter, and two more halfway into the 3rd Quarter. These didn't come back to hurt them, but under different circumstances, perhaps it could have. And for all that went wrong, or could have gone wrong, there was still plenty of good. The Defense got off to a flying start, stuffing the Packers run game and not allowing Rodgers to complete a pass until the 2nd Quarter. And when the Packers did get going, the defense bent, but didn't break. Eddie Lacy and James Starks never found consistent holes in the defense for big runs, Navorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Company kept holding them to short gains. And for all his heroics, Aaron Rodgers only mustered 177 yards passing on the day, and the 49ers managed to keep constant pressure on him. Offensively, of course Kaepernick and Crabtree were the stars, but Frank Gore also chimed in with 66 tough yards and a Touchdown. Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin didn't light it up, but they made their catches count, and overall, the offensive line did their usual stellar job of creating lanes and protecting the Quarterback.

So, once again, the 49ers have disposed of the Packers. The Packers can't get over their Colin Kaepernick Problem and so for the second year in a row, the 49ers have Discount Doublechecked them into the offseason. This makes Kaepernick 3-0 against the Packers and each time, he's managed to confound them and make absolutely every play necessary. This also would be the 4th Postseason game in which Kaepernick has really elevated his game, and having now done this over two seasons, will begin to give Kap the reputation of being a Big Game Quarterback. He's now won two Road Playoff games, so the venue doesn't matter to him. The weather probably won't be as much of a factor next weekend as the 49ers journey down to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers in a rematch of what was probably their most frustrating game of the season, a 10-9 loss at Home in Week 10 that saw the 49ers unable to do much of anything on offense. At the time, the 49ers didn't have Crabtree and Davis was lost during the game with a concussion. The Panthers sacked Kaepernick 6 times and really manhandled them in the process. This isn't lost on the 49ers. After the game, when asked about playing the Panthers, Kap said that his only thought is "...that we owe them one for what they did at our house."

People kept saying that the 49ers and Packers are vastly different than they were in Week 1. The 49ers and Panthers are vastly different than they were in Week 10, too. I wouldn't expect the same result next Sunday.

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