Monday, September 8, 2014

Back In Red

In another era, the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys were, for all intents and purposes, the only two teams that mattered in the NFL. Three consecutive seasons, these two teams met in the NFC Championship Game, and that game may as well have been the Super Bowl since the winner of that game went on to flatten the hapless AFC Champion in their following game.

But that was the 1990s, and now it's 2014, and the 49ers, following a forgettable several seasons have resumed their position among the NFL's elite. The Cowboys, well, not so much. They boast a legion of overrated stars that cannot gel, a megalomaniacal owner that can't get out of his own way, and a Quarterback who inevitably finds a way to screw things up without much of an effort. And this is who the 49ers matched up against in their season opener, a glitzy hype-fest at 4pm on Sunday, with Joe Buck and his hair sitting along side the ever-agreeable Troy Aikman behind the mic.

True to form, the Cowboys screwed up early and often. Tony Romo threw three interceptions in the first half, the 49ers ran out to an early lead and basically cruised home with a 28-17 victory that probably wasn't anywhere near as close as the final score would indicate.

It took all of three plays for the 49ers to capitalize on a Dallas mistake. Despite taking the field looking woefully shorthanded thanks to injuries and suspensions, the 49ers defense got off to a flying start when DeMarco Murray fumbled on his first carry of the game. Dan Skuta, getting the start at Linebacker in the stead of Aldon Smith, stripped Murray and Chris Culliver, in his return to the lineup after missing all of the 2013 season with an injury, scooped up the ball and raced 35 yards unimpeded for a Touchdown.

For all the injuries, Aldon Smith's suspension, Free Agency departures and the assorted controversy-starting stories that had surrounded the 49ers—particularly their defense—this was quite a way to kick off the season, running back a Fumble for a Touchdown on the season's 3rd play. By the end of the game, though the Defense didn't have their best day, they would continue to force mistakes and take advantage.

Dallas' ensuing drive was, in a scene oft-repeated throughout the game, painfully slow in coming together. Tony Romo completed a few passes but was generally not at his best, but DeMarco Murray atoned for his fumble by running well. Still, the Cowboys were helped out by a pair of Ahmad Brooks penalties that extended things, and they were knocking on the door of a Touchdown before Justin Smith sacked Romo and forced Dallas to kick a Field Goal.

Finally, nearly halfway through the 1st Quarter, the 49ers offense took the field. They weren't out there very long. Not because they turned the ball over, but because they tore through the Cowboys B-level defense so quickly it was mind-boggling. It took the 49ers all of 4 plays to score, Colin Kaepernick rifled in a pair of completions to Old Reliable Anquan Boldin to cover the majority of the field, an interference call on a pass intended for Michael Crabtree got some more yards, and then Kaepernick, after nearly getting tripped up by a pursuing Dallas defender, hit an uncovered Vernon Davis in the right corner of the End Zone for a 29-yard Touchdown. The Cowboys much-maligned Defense was living up to their billing as Kaepernick, who'd struggled through an erratic preseason, completed 3 of 3 passes for 73 yards and a Touchdown in his first drive of the season.

If you were rooting for the 49ers, and it appeared that many people that went to the game in Dallas were, you had to be feeling good, and after the next sequence of events you were probably feeling even better. Romo took the Cowboys offense back onto the field. His first pass was complete to Jason Witten, who was subsequently stripped by Patrick Willis and the ball scooped up by Corey Lemonier and returned for a Touchdown. Replay ultimately reversed this call, but undaunted, Romo just handed the ball back to the 49ers two plays later when Romo decided that he'd try to pass to a triple-covered Dez Bryant and, not surprisingly, Eric Reid intercepted the ball and subsequently ran it all the way back to the Dallas 2 yard line. On the next play, Kaepernick hit Davis for another Touchdown and the 49ers were out to a 21-3 lead before the 1st Quarter was out.

The Cowboys next possession ended with similar results. Though they moved the ball well down the field and were once again knocking on the door for a Touchdown that might have brought them back in the game, Romo ended up alligator-arming a pass not particularly close to Witten on 1st and Goal from the San Francisco 5 yard line, and Patrick Willis was there to make an acrobatic Interception to snuff out the Cowboys. The 49ers did not score on their ensuing drive, as a pair of penalties served to short-circuit things, but once again Romo turned around and handed the ball back to them when Perrish Cox, filling in for Culliver, who'd been injured late in the 1st Quarter, intercepted a pass intended for Bryant. Romo had now managed to throw interceptions on 3 consecutive drives, each one more spectacular than the one before it.

The 49ers, this time, set out to eat up the remaining clock in the 1st half, and that meant that for the first time in the game, we got a good look at Frank Gore, who did what he always does and ground out a bunch of yards, as well as the debut of Rookie Carlos Hyde, who proved himself a very intriguing backup with a lot of energy. Gore did most of the work, but it was Hyde who finished the deal, scoring his first NFL Touchdown with :39 seconds left in the half to put the 49ers up 28-3 at Halftime.

The 49ers did not score any points in the second half, but they did take their foot off the pedal somewhat. They basically spent most of the half handing the ball to Gore or Hyde, or LaMichael James, with Kaepernick sprinkling in some passes, including a pair to newcomer Stevie Johnson and more to Anquan Boldin, who as usual was Kap's favorite target. Kap finished out his day going 16 of 23 for 201 yards. Boldin caught all 8 passes thrown his way for 99 yards. Gore ran for 66 yards and Hyde buttressed him by rushing for 50.

Defensively, the 49ers did allow the Cowboys to score a pair of cosmetic Touchdowns in the second half, but in general they made it very difficult for the Cowboys to sustain anything. Their drives were mostly of the painfully slow-moving variety and were often aided by penalties or some weird breaks. There were more injuries, including to both starting Cornerbacks, Tramaine Brock and Culliver, which forced Perrish Cox and Rookie Dontae Johnson into the lineup, but Cox, as we saw earlier, came through with an Interception and Johnson, undaunted by getting thrown into the lineup in his first game, played admirably well and hung with it throughout the game. Dallas' two scores came when the game was far out of reach and just about over, so it's not as though the outcome was ever in much doubt.

Afterward, when asked about any particular ill feelings toward Jim Harbaugh, Anquan Boldin flatly stated that he had no idea there were any problems. Sunday, there certainly weren't any problems for the 49ers. You don't know if this was simply because they were playing a team that looks truly terrible, or if they're all the way back—I suppose that remains to be seen and it's what makes the early quotient of an NFL schedule so nerve-wracking—but at least for this game, the 49ers looked like they're still a powerhouse in the league and their elite players are still elite players. Now, they get to return home and open up their new stadium on The Biggest Game In The Galaxy on Sunday Night, as Faith Hill or whoever is singing the song now welcomes everyone in to Levi's Stadium when they take on the Bears next Sunday.

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