Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Save Your Season

New Orleans hasn't exactly been kind to the 49ers in recent years. Their Super Bowl loss there notwithstanding, they also played a game there in 2012 in which multiple players suffered season-ending injuries in a game they did ultimately win. Last year, they had a late lead, but a near-unconscionable roughing the passer call on Ahmad Brooks, negating a Drew Brees sack and fumble that might have given the 49ers the ball with a chance to run out the clock, allowed the Saints to tie and eventually win the game on a last-second Field Goal. Sunday, the 49ers were in New Orleans again, limping in with a record of 4-4 and in desperate need of a win in a difficult place to win in order to keep their incredibly dicey playoff hopes alive.

In a back-and-forth affair that saw the 49ers charge out to an early lead only to see the Saints come back and take a lead with under 2 minutes to play, the 49ers converted a miraculous 4th down play, as Colin Kaepernick, facing heavy pressure, scrambled around to keep the play alive long enough for Michael Crabtree to get open down the field. Kaepernick threw a mighty heave down the field and was able to find his sure-handed receiver for a 51-yard gain that put the 49ers in position to tie the game. In Overtime, Ahmad Brooks redeemed himself by once again sacking Brees and forcing him to Fumble, this time without a penalty, and the 49ers kicked the winning Field Goal and escaped New Orleans with a 27-24 win that for all intents and purposes saved their season, elevating their record to 5-4 and keeping their Playoff hopes intact.

The game wasn't on in New York, and of course I'd mentioned previously that the NFL put their previously free streaming audio service behind a paywall, which meant that I was relegated to following the game on my computer, while watching the lesser matchup between the Jets and the Steelers. Rather than hearing our old friend Kevin Burkhart, I was subjected to some lines on a screen and the dulcet tones of Kevin Harlan—that doesn't quite rate. But nonetheless, the 49ers have done well when Kevin Burkhart's been present, and they got off to a fine start on Sunday. Antoine Bethea intercepted Drew Brees on the game's 3rd play. The 49ers, who'd abandoned the run in previous weeks to little success, went back to where their bread had been best buttered for years and handed the ball to Frank Gore. It took 3 plays for Gore to plow his way into the end zone for a Touchdown that got the 49ers off to a 7-0 lead. After forcing a 3-and-out, the 49ers shoved their way down the field once again behind Gore and Carlos Hyde, and this drive again finished with a Touchdown, as Hyde scored on a 9-yard run to put the 49ers ahead 14-0.

But the hot start eventually stalled, as Brees turned back into Brees and started hitting his array of receivers with ease to move the Saints down the field and eventually put themselves on the board when Shayne Graham kicked a Field Goal. The 49ers next possession was short-circuited by an Offensive Pass Interference penalty on Anquan Boldin. The Saints responded by scoring a Touchdown when Brees hit Brandin Cooks for a 31-yard score. But the 49ers regained control of things on their following possession thanks to a pair of clutch catches from Boldin, one of which was caught in traffic for a 25-yard gain, and the second of which resulted in a Touchdown from 15 yards away to put the 49ers ahead 21-10.

The 49ers managed to keep the score where it was for the remainder of the half, although they didn't make it easy on themselves. Kaepernick, who'd had a reasonably good 1st half, capped things off by fumbling the ball away after a sack at the 49ers 42-yard line. This turned the ball over to the Saints in prime position to draw closer, but while trying to thread a pass in to Jimmy Graham, Brees was intercepted by Chris Culliver to snuff out the drive and send the game to halftime with the 49ers ahead, 21-10.

In the second half, the 49ers offense stagnated, while the Saints caught fire. Though Gore and Hyde continued to chew up yards on the ground, Kaepernick dissolved into a number of checkdowns, sacks and incompletions. In all, the Saints got to Kaepernick 4 times, which wasn't as bad as the miserable 8 sacks he suffered at the hands of the Rams last week, but still wasn't very good, and continues to underline the problems the 49ers have had on the offensive line. Though Joe Staley and Mike Iupati have played at their usual high level, the 49ers have been suffering through the loss of Center Daniel Kilgore, out for the season, and Anthony Davis, who's missed several games. Kilgore's replacement, Rookie Marcus Martin, hasn't quite gotten his sea legs under him, and opposing defenses have been able to exploit this. The Rams did it last week, and the Saints did it again on Sunday, and while the 49ers plodded along, the Saints came back thanks to a pair of Brees-to-Jimmy Graham scores, one of which came late in the 3rd Quarter to make the score 21-17, and another coming two plays after the two-minute warning in the 4th Quarter that appeared to put the Saints in position to win the game, 24-21.

So, the 49ers, who have had issues all season finishing out games now appeared to have this problem that's plagued them all year now spell their ultimate downfall. On the road, in a stadium that's always a challenge to win in, with the specter of a 3rd straight loss and a 4-5 record staring them in the face, the 49ers had to come up with a clutch drive in response. If not, well, you may as well kiss their asses goodbye for 2014.

This drive that would ultimately save the 49ers season didn't start out well at all. Boldin started out by dropping a 1st down pass, and on 2nd down couldn't hang on to a low pass. On 3rd down, Michael Crabtree couldn't hang on to another pass.

Then came the 4th down play. Kaepernick had to slide out to his right to avoid a blitz, and somehow managed to stay upright long enough for Crabtree to find himself open deep down the middle of the field. Kaepernick wound up and uncorked about as clutch a pass as he's ever thrown, landing safely in the arms of Crabtree for that key 51-yard game that would set up Phil Dawson to tie the game with a Field Goal.

Still, the Saints had one final opportunity with :44 seconds left, and they almost pulled off a counter-miracle with time expiring. The Saints attempted the old Hail Mary play from midfield, and amid several players leaping for the jump ball, Jimmy Graham caught the pass and landed in the End Zone for what appeared to be a Game-winning score. Fitting that this was how it would come down, after the 49ers had to battle back the way they did. But flags flew all over the place as Graham shoved Perrish Cox in the back before he jumped for the ball, and although Cox probably could have won an Oscar for the flop he took, the Offensive Pass Interference call was pretty clear. The Touchdown was negated, and the game moved to Overtime.

In Overtime, the Saints managed to move the ball across midfield, and although they had a convertable 4th down play, they decided to punt the ball away to the 49ers. But the 49ers could do nothing with the ball on their first possession and ended up punting the ball back to the Saints, with Andy Lee doing what he usually does and pinning them deep in their own territory.

This, of course, set the stage for Ahmad Brooks to strip-sack Brees, sending the ball flying forward where Chris Borland, an unsung Rookie who's really come on strong in the absence of Patrick Willis, recovered the ball. Opting to not screw around, Jim Harbaugh immediately sent Dawson out for the Field Goal attempt, and although Dawson kicked an ugly knuckler that seemed to take a right turn in midair, the kick went through the uprights and the 49ers had saved the game, their season and their sanity with a 27-24 win.

Clean, this was not, and the 49ers haven't really played a clean game all season. This hasn't been an easy season for the 49ers and they've really had to claw their way to the 5 victories they have. The injuries to the offensive line have been bad enough, and that's not even getting to the players they've been missing on defense. But the Defense, oddly enough, has been the unit that's been carrying them this season. In spite of not having Aldon Smith or Navorro Bowman, and with Patrick Willis still ailing, the defense has been making the necessary plays. It's been guys like Chris Borland that have been stepping up. Borland has been positively Willis-like these past two weeks, racking up 19 tackles against the Rams, and had a hand in another 17 against the Saints, in addition to coming up with the key Fumble recovery in Overtime. Whatever it is, the 49ers did what was necessary to get themselves a tough win in New Orleans. Next, a trip to our neck of the woods to play the Giants, always an interesting matchup. Perhaps I'll find my way to New Jersey for this one, although given the escalating price of tickets for these games, it doesn't seem especially likely. We'll see.

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