Monday, December 17, 2012

49ers clinch playoff spot with win at Foxborough

The Belicheats haven't lost a home game in December since 2002.  Just last week, they absolutely destroyed the previously 1-loss (likely AFC reg season champs) Texans 42-14 there, pushing their win streak to 7 games.  The 9ers were coming off an unconvincing win over the Dolphins and a loss to the Rams.  Elite veteran, Brady, was going up against Kaepernick, a 2nd year starting just his 5th game.

The SF lead was 17-3 at half.  (It should have been 34-3 but we'll get into that later).  By early 3rd quarter, it swelled to 31-3.  The 49ers had forced 4 turnovers - two interceptions and two fumbles - but actually only capitalized on the last two, both early in the 3rd quarter.

Before the half, the 9ers had squandered 4 different scoring opportunities.  After a Carlos Rogers interception which he returned 53 yards to the NE 5 yard line, Delanie Walker fumbled away a sure 3 points, if not 7.  Next possession, Akers missed a 39 yarder wide left.  I'm not sure if he's been affected by injuries lately, but he already missed game-winners in both games vs the Rams.  This needs to be fixed immediately - otherwise it will haunt us in the playoffs.

Next possession, we force a fumble, move to the NE 25 yard line.  But when Harbaugh decides to go for it on 4th and 1, Kaepernick can't handle the handoff and wastes the easy opportunity at the 1st down.  Our front line had made a great push and the 1st down was a matter of falling forward.  (Collinsworth actually called this fumble right before the snap).  Either way, we should have had at least 3 points.

Next possession, we drive the ball all the way to the NE 4 yard line with a 1st down and goal.  We walk away with only a FG, leaving 4 points on the field.  In total, that's 17 points that we could have had.  I would have been happy with at least 10, giving us a 27-3 lead at half.

I expected the Belicheats to mount some sort of comeback charge.  Their lethal offense can wear down any defense, especially a non-desperate one with a 28 point lead in its pocket.  I was angry but not surprised when Brady led them back with 4 unanswered TDs with still over 6 minutes left.

LaMichael James took the ensuing kickoff and swung the momentum of the game with a great sideline return to the NE 38.  On the next play, the Patriots blitzed everyone and left their corner on an island with no help.  Crabtree caught a short pass, made the corner miss and sprinted to the endzone for the gamewinner.

In the end, this game means something more than just a great 41-34 win over a contender at their house.  It means that even if catastrophe happens and we lose to cheatey petey's Seahawks on Sunday, we still have a home game vs Arizona to clinch the division.  It means that we are still in the lead for the NFC 2nd seed (half game lead on GB) which gets us a 1st round bye.  Lastly, it means that Kaepernick proved Harbaugh right on Sunday.

I know that Kaepernick still needs to go through playoff fire.  Alex's game vs the Saints last January was an all-time great.  But Kaep's big play ability is what allowed the offense to match the defense's contributions.  He had 4 TDs to Brady's 1.  His first touchdown was a 24 yard throw over the top to a streaking Moss.  2nd TD as a 34 yard looping throw to the corner of the endzone to Walker.  The 3rd was perhaps the most impressive - a 27 yard, 64 mph bullet splitting two defenders to Crabtree who landed in for the score.  The most important throw of course was the decisive game-winning strike to Crabtree, which put him in position to take it to the house.

Honestly, I didn't feel great about Harbaugh's decision to start Kaepernick after Smith was recovered from the concussion.  Smith had earned the right to start this year based off his leadership last year, his performance in the Saints playoff match, his willingness to come back after we courted Peyton and his outstanding play this season (4th highest rating of all QBs).  Next season, if Harbaugh wanted to go with Kaepernick, that would have been fine by me.  But this year should have been Smith's to finish.

I thought that we were just one fumble away from the Superbowl.  Sure, we should add quality WRs to stretch our offense, but the focus should have been about tweaking the offense.  Things were working - we were arguably the best team in NFL.  Its hard to be great in the NFL, much less sustaining it year after year.  Who knows how long our window would remain open?  This was not the time for messing with a working formula.  Certainly, not drastic changes, say changing your starting QB from a 7 year pro to a 1st time starter who is just 1 year and half removed from college - especially when the starter wasn't even playing poorly.  We aren't even considering possible lockerroom or long-term implications.  Now, I still don't feel good about making Vernon Davis, our sole deep threat last season and a team leader, merely an afterthought.

But, Harbaugh marches to the beat of his own drummer.  He is solely responsible for resurrecting Alex's career last year and his ways are solely responsible for turning the 49ers around from 6 wins to 13, without an offseason or significant personnel changes.  And Kaepernick has piloted wins over Chicago, New Orleans and New England when they were all at or near their peak.

If he beats Seattle on Sunday night, then there's really no looking back.

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