49ers pass over Cardinals for first round bye
With 8:08 to go in the 2nd quarter, the scoreboard read 6-0. The offense rummaged three 1st downs, yet was stonewalled on four attempts for 3rd down conversions, resulting in three punts. A 40% passing completion, 10 rushes for 52 yards, and a missed field goal jumped off of the stat sheet. Although these numbers seemed tailor-made for the Cardinals’ last place offense, they belonged to the 49ers.
Then, Colin Kapernick decided to lock in on his favorite receiver. Two straight deep balls to Michael Crabtree and the whole scope of the game changed from a frustration to first week bye. Crabtree took eight passes 172 yards, caught two TDs, and broke two T.O. records, including totaling 1000 receiving yards for the season, to secure the number two seed in the NFL Playoffs, following a Packer loss. They didn’t steam roll Arizona, but they did eventually find their offensive groove, scoring 27 unanswered. The 27-13 victory even allowed for Alex Smith to dust off his wristband and call some plays under center.
The dismal prospect of relinquishing a divisional crown and playing a Wild Card game on the road with a loss cataclysmically shifted to a more welcome elation as Kapernick lobbed a pass under pressure from the middle of Arizona’s D from his own 20 for 31 yards. Suddenly, the field opened up, and Kapernick, as he scrambled to his left, heaved a pass down the sideline that Crabtree grabbed for a 49-yard TD. Despite a couple more shanks by Akers, the Niners built on the momentum of locking on a primary receiver, like a video game, and never looked back. The expectation of Brian Hoyer, former Brady understudy, like all QBs that helm the Cardinals, to showcase the certain Hall of Fame skills of Larry Fitzgerald took a back seat to the Niners combo of Kaepernick-to-Crabtree, one usually reserved for key 3rd downs.
Despite the offense flailing early, the Niners amassed 407 total yards, 276 through the air on the arm of the young QB now preparing for a home game in the playoffs. The one-two punch of Gore and James netted 68 and 49 yards respectively on a combined 27 carries. The defense played their usual stout, unforgiving style, despite the Cardinals opening the game forcing their run game into the void left by Justin Smith. The win and the Packers loss gives the Niners some time to nurse their bumps and bruises while awaiting a possible match up with either Green Bay, Seattle, or Washington. They will need their full compliment on D in any of those battles. The only comfort of entertaining a Rodgers, Wilson, or RG3 led offense is Candlestick and the home fans. Despite the advantage, SF will have to generate its own luck by utilizing their advantage in running game, now that they have made their goal of the post-season. Kaepernick successfully engineered enough solid plays to carry a bit of momentum into January, but the climbing stakes will challenge the youngster, and the coaches will need to use the week off to protect him from scheming coordinators hoping to capitalize on his inexperience. For now, the only opponent of the Niners is time, which they will no doubt spend trying to heal for a Lombardi run.
Jonathan Cha is an NFL writer for TPF. He believes in home-field advantage if the team features a really good defense. He can be contacted at JCha@ThePenaltyFlagBlog.com.