Come to think of it, there was no way that the Niners make it easy. It hasn’t been their style. Not in their mojo.
Up 34-13 with less than seven minutes in the game and with the league’s best defense, it was finally a time to relax. To take a breath. To get some reserves in and rest the starters, starting with Alex Smith.
Alas, there was no Colin Kaepernick time. What looked like a cakewalk turned into the proverbial Maalox game, thanks to Donte Whitner under-cutting and then mistiming Kellen Clemons’ throw to Brandon Lloyd for a 36-yard TD pass. That was followed by the botched onsides kick recovery and a pass interference call on Tarell Brown on Lloyd for a one-yard score. Just like that, it was a 34-27 game with 4:39 to go.
Naturally, the Niners went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, and you could hear the grumbles in the stomach of 49ers fans all over the Bay Area. It had to come down to the defense.
NaVorro Bowman to the rescue. His sack of Clemons put the Rams in a 3rd-and-17. More importantly, it put Clemons on the injury cart with a ripped-up right ankle.
If there is one thing we know about the 49ers, it’s that Tom Brandstater, who might have been the Rams' fourth quarterback this year, does not beat San Francisco. And he didn’t, which doesn’t make the Niner fans all that calm.
With that, here are the six things to ponder while the Niners get two weeks off as the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
The two interceptions by Tarell Brown stand out, but so does the zero under the turnover category. Again, the Niners made the Rams beat them, and they almost did. Take away the Whitner misplay on Lloyd, and the game never gets close.
Think of the good plays the Niners made, such as not over-reacting on a trick play and intercepting James Norwood's helium-filled pass back to Clemons. The special teams play that had Andy Lee’s punts constantly getting downed inside the 15, including a back-to-back. Can you believe this where a punt that was downed inside the 5 was called back due to off-setting penalties followed by one that was downed at the 1.
That led to another Brown interception and then a short TD run by Anthony Dixon.
Granted, the Rams made it close, but the Niners did enough to win. That’s all that counts.
In his post-game comments broadcast on TV, coach Jim Harbaugh said the fake field goal that resulted in David Akers’ (two) first career TD pass to Michael Crabtree had been something they worked on for weeks.
That shows that the Niner coaching staff is maximizing the team’s chances for victory. But that play, in particular, calls out some examination.
The prior play, a deep pass play up the sideline to Brett Swain, went incomplete. Normally, Crabtree would then leave the field because he’s not on the field goal team. But he didn’t leave the field. That suggests that Harbaugh had the play called prior to fourth down.
Not only that, special teams coach Brad Seely and Harbaugh also knew the rules, namely that Crabtree could not have lined up that close to the sideline—which is how the Rams never saw him—if the ball had been near the team’s bench.
In other words, that play cannot be called from the 32-yard line because Crabtree could have blended in with the 49ers on the sidelines. That the play started at the 14-yard line made it completely legal.
Think of the onsides kick against the Giants, the fake field goal that was nullified by a timeout against the Cardinals and now this throw from Akers. All of them were called at the perfect time and worked well.
In this light, the Rams’ successful onside kick was really the Niners’ only special teams mistake all year.
Three sacks on Smith are the one area that suggests the Niners might have a very steep climb in the playoffs. Against gunslingers like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees (not to mention Eli Manning should he get that far), the Niners appear vulnerable in must-pass situations.
The Niners finished 6-of-16 in third down conversions, the last a 4-yard carry by Dixon that sealed the win with less than two minutes. And Smith’s completion to Crabtree on 3rd-and-6 early in the fourth quarter sparked the second-half offensive surge.
Add to this the mystery that is Frank Gore. Harbaugh says he “has some things,” meaning injuries, that have kept him out of most games. Gore is a good power runner but very helpful on pass protection. Though Kendall Hunter did well (16 runs, 76 yards), as did Dixon, but neither help out on blocking on passing like Gore.
The 44 sacks given up by the offensive line matches last year’s total. It is not a good sign considering the team is much better in all phases of the game save that.
With eight catches for 118 yards, his best of the year, Davis played the go-to-guy for most of the game. Considering that the Niners had only three healthy wide receivers and were missing Delanie Walker, there was no doubt that Davis would be a major role in the passing game. He came through to say the least.
Impressively, he had two catches over 35 yards, with the latter of 44 yards setting up the third-quarter TD. And it has to be said about Smith: When throwing between the numbers, he is deadly accurate throwing over the middle.
And the same has to be said for Michael Crabtree. His catch and run for a TD in the second quarter was a thing of beauty. With the Rams crowding the line of scrimmage, getting the ball outside to Crabtree, who made a defender miss, meant the safety was too far to help out. That led to the easy touchdown.
The Niners threw 32 times, and Crabtree and Davis were targeted on 20 of those. Crabtree totaled nine catches for 92 yards and two TDs.
The benefits of this win should resonate for a long time. It gave the Niners a much better chance of getting in the NFC Championship game. As most assume, the playoffs will have the Saints prevailing over visiting Detroit during next week’s Wild Card Weekend game, and that will bring New Orleans to San Francisco.
And it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the Giants could pull off a Lambeau upset. They have a good quarterback who is playoff tested with a postseason victory in Green Bay to his credit. Add to that Green Bay’s soft pass defense and battered offensive line, crazier things have happened.
That leaves the Saints-49ers game being perhaps the biggest matchup in terms of getting to the Super Bowl. There’s a good chance that holding down the powerful Saints offense to win that game brings a better chance of victory in the NFC title game.
Success there means a trip to Indy. The Niners in the Super Bowl? Who considered that a reality in August?