Monday, January 14, 2013

Candlestick & Kaepernick, 49ers beat the Pack

The whole season led to this game, for the team and for me personally.  The NFC West title was nice and a lot closer than we all thought it would be, but it was the assumed outcome from the preseason.  However, getting that first round bye so we could host our first playoff game - that was where our season should really begin.  Ever since last January's heartbreaker vs the Giants, we had been .  And it led to this divisional playoff at Candlestick on Saturday, Jan 12, 2013.  We had traveled to the Bay for a Friday funeral so it just happened that we had a free Saturday AND inlaws as babysitters.

I couldn't pass up this chance.  Who knows, this could be the last of so many historic playoff games held at Candlestick before the move in 2014.  (I certainly hope not - that would mean we won't win the division next year).  This was going to be the 27th playoff game played there (9ers are now 20-7), the most of any NFL stadium in history.  From Dwight Clark's catch to TO's catch to Vernon's catch - all at Candlestick.  Also, we were playing one of the most storied teams in football - the Packers own 9 championships (before 1966) and 4 Superbowls.  Plus, they were the nemesis who had beat us 4 of the 5 times we've met in the postseason.  And, with reigning NFL MVP Rodgers in his prime, many had picked them as the preseason favorite to win the SB.  Lastly, the greatness of modern football teams can be hard to maintain.  We came out of nowhere last season and our window could close just as fast.  If we win it all this year and I merely watched our last playoff home game on TV a mere 25 miles away, I'd regret it forever.

I had probably spent multiple hours of my life last week scouring ticket sites last week and by Thursday night decided that paying about $50 over face value per ticket was about the best rate we were going to find, especially for 3 seats together (one old college roommate was persuaded easily).  But right before we pulled the trigger, I decided to check Ticketmaster and lo and behold, the 49ers had just released more tix.  We were going for face.  What's more, my parents were gifting a pair to my wife and I.

The last and first time I went to Candlestick was in 2003 (Garcia and TO's last 9ers game).  Traffic getting to the stadium was not nearly as bad as I thought.  We rolled into the rundown neighborhood of South SF nearly 2 hours before kickoff.  Walking from a distant parking lot, I noted the distinct lack of a criminal element feel, even while breathing in some 2nd hand illegal smoke.  Sure, there was back and forth banter with Packer fans, but it felt good-natured ("Discount double-check this!"), not intimidating the way it would at a dodger or trojan game.  We walked across a strange wood/concrete bridge, the kind you'd see at Frontierland in Disneyland, to get from the far lot to the close one.  There was a bottleneck before walking up that 2 way bridge and another going up the main escalator to the upper level.

Candlestick might be historic, built in 1960 for the Giants and retrofitted in 1971 for the 49ers, but its still oddly shaped for a football stadium and just seems barren and dated.  It has no modern amenities nor aesthetic charm and contains little true sentimental value on its own merit.  The "concrete baffling" which encircles the top of the stadium was originally designed to decrease the wind factor, but is only effective in its memorable unattractiveness.  To combat the wind and chill of Candlestick in January, we came with at least 5 layers and a blanket.  (Had Walmart or Target sold 49ers snuggies, I might have been persuaded.  Snuggie, you missed your chance).

I bought a 12 inch polish sausage for $8 (not bad at all for stadium fare) and we made our way to our seats in section UB53.  It was in the Northeast corner, upper tier, left (when facing the field) of the scoreboard, just about in line with the North endzone.  A pretty decent view, especially remembering the less enjoyable views of football from upper endzone seats.  Also more enjoyable was the fact that we were away from the rowdier fans in the upper reserve behind us.  Our section was full of more good-natured 49er fans who loved to high-five everyone around them every single 1st down.  And we had a lot of 1st downs.  Also memorable was the fact that most of our section stood for large portions of the game - something I did not expect outside of college football.  The normal wine & cheese 9er fans clearly turn up the intensity and the noise when it comes to the playoffs.  I guess just like UCLA basketball fans, our standards are too high to get worked up for just anything.  Huey Lewis & the News sang the national anthem and timed it perfectly with the jets above.

To beat the league MVP with a QB starting his 8th game, I thought we needed these things: minimize Packer possessions by controlling the clock through running the ball, decimate the Packers' porous offensive line to apply pressure while containing Rodgers' rollout ability, avoid big plays and pass interference calls on their playmakers, avoid turnovers and capitalize on our field goals.  Through 1 quarter, it seemed we were not successful.  However, the truth was the Packers had scored in unlikely ways.  The 2 key plays: a pick-six and a lucky deep bomb were not reliable ways to score.

On the other hand, Kaepernick was leading long clock-consuming drives.  80 yards and 48 yard drives in the 1st half and 3 key consecutive drives of 80, 93 and 93 yards in the 2nd half to seal it.  In the end, the 49ers had dominated the clock 38 minutes to GB's 22.  We had earned 26 first downs to GB's 16.  We had accumulated 579 yards of offense to their 352 (including 323 to 104 total rushing advantage).  This is the most prolific offensive performance in 49ers playoff history, including the romps over the Dolphins, Broncos and Chargers in those Superbowls.  Also most impressive was that the 49ers were 8-13 on 3rd downs.

Kaepernick had set a NFL playoff record for most QB rushing yards ever with 181 yards, bettering Michael Vick's previous mark of 172 yards.  He even outperformed Rodgers with more passing yards (263-257) and averaged 8.3 yards per pass (Rodgers 6.4).  So, on the night he had 444 total yards with 2 passing TDs and 2 rushing TDs.  It's just the 4th time anyone in playoff history has thrown for 2 TDs and rushed for 2 TDs.

There is no question now that Harbaugh's gutsy decision to bench Alex Smith has been justified.  I must admit that I wanted to see Alex finish out this season, banking on his experience to give us a better chance of winning.  But Harbaugh knew that we could have a higher ceiling with Kaepernick and made the unconventional decision.  Even with the added explosiveness, I also figured that Kaep would require a typical beginner's learning curve.  The lack of experience in dealing with defenses that will start game-planning for him might hurt us come playoff time.  Hey, we're not building for the future!  We can't afford to waste this year!  But I was wrong.  GB certainly knew what was coming but couldn't stop him.  (Still, defenses will only get tougher in the next 2 games).

And while the hype has been on rookies Luck, Wilson and RG3, Kaepernick has actually started less games than any of them (by half) but is the only one left still playing.  I'd even argue that he might be a better option than RG3, simply because you never see Kaep take hard hits like RG3 does multiple times a game.

Against the Packers, Kaep rebounded from his horrible pick-6 decision with a drive that culminated in a 20 yard TD run.  Midway through the 3rd quarter, he scored the go-ahead TD with a 56 yard dash.  I will always remember that play because of the relative silence.  After faking the handoff, Candlestick fell strangely quiet, as if we were all trying to figure out who had the ball, and then we realized that he was galloping downfield with no defender in position to stop him, and then we thought "was this really happening?", and then the Stick erupted.  It seemed that he was virtually untouched on both plays.

Two other 9ers on offense finished with big games - Frank Gore rushed for 119 yards, 1 TD, and had another 48 yards receiving.  Michael Crabtree has really emerged with Kaepernick's tenure and he grabbed 9 balls for 119 yards and 2 TDs.  Vernon Davis' role has conversely shrunken but I won't forget Kaep's 44 yard seam pass over the top to Davis that Alex Smith used to throw to him regularly.  At least on the night, Kaep attempted 5 passes to Davis.  Maybe another week or two of practice will help us make better use of Vernon's skills.

Our defense really was amazing.  Though we only finished with 1 sack on Rodgers, we forced 4 punts and intercepted him once.  We held them to 2 TD drives both in the 1st half (until the last garbage time drive) and allowed only 3 meaningful 2nd half points.

The final key moment of the game to me was when the 49ers were up 2 touchdowns with a quarter to play.  GB was driving down the field as Rodgers completed his first 5 passes.  Then came 3rd down and Rodgers' deep ball was just out of Jennings' reach.  Though they were at midfield, they decided to punt on 4th and 5 with nearly 12 minutes left, down 2 TDs.  SF went on a 8 minute TD drive, including lining up for a 4th and 1, and the game was over.  3:30 left, up 3 TDs, we at Candlestick were pulsing in celebration.

After the game, we soaked it in, took a few pictures, then walked down to field level as we exited.  We posed for pictures at the edge of the north endzone of the field, the very same spot that Dwight Clark jump-started the 49ers dynasty with "The Catch" back in 1981.  And that's one of the pieces of history that made what might be my last ever visit to Candlestick absolutely perfect.

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