49ers vs. Patriots: San Francisco's Biggest Winners and Losers from Week 15

Art WellersdickContributor IIDecember 17, 2012

49ers vs. Patriots: San Francisco's Biggest Winners and Losers from Week 15

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    The San Francisco 49ers pulled out a huge victory against the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football, a game that they needed to win in order to avoid a win-at-all-costs showdown with the Seattle Seahawks next week in Seattle.

    I only had three Grand mal seizures during this game, more than I would have liked to suffer, but every single one was worth it in the end. I feel like a winner for holding back the more severe ones and I suppose that whoever I would have had to pay for an ambulance ride is the loser in all of this.

    But there are more winners and losers as a result of this game, so let's examine which 49ers came out on top and who should be looking over their shoulder after this scintillating win in Foxboro.

Winner: LaMichael James

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    A look at the stat sheet isn't going to reveal anything special in terms of LaMichael James' performance against New England. But forget about the stat sheet. The way James played proved that he can handle Kendall Hunter's role as the second running back.

    He showed good speed and vision on the edge and he had a huge kickoff return when the 49ers needed it most late in the fourth quarter after Tom Brady took the Patriots down the field and tied the game at 31 points apiece.

    James clearly will never be an every-down back, but he doesn't have to in order to be a big contributor on this team. He has more than enough speed to serve as a competent change-of-pace to Frank Gore, and more importantly, he has the speed and shiftiness to become a very good return man for the 49ers.

    Is he going to rush for 100 yards a game? No, he probably won't accomplish that feat more than a couple times in his entire career with the 49ers. But he can certainly pick up 100 yards per game or more when adding in his return abilities, and this could very well spell the end of Ted Ginn, Jr.'s tenure as the primary return man for the 49ers.

Loser: Ted Ginn, Jr.

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    When Ted Ginn almost let a bouncing punt hit him in the leg and end up in a turnover, I had to fight off the first of several seizures. I fell out of my chair and only Ed Hochuli's mangled but fortuitous interpretation of what had happened pulled me out of it.

    That being said, that play should never have happened to begin with. If you cannot field a punt cleanly on the fly, then the next best thing is to get as far away from the ball as possible. Especially when half the kicking team's coverage unit is bearing down on you.

    Ginn has been a very, very good return man for the 49ers, but his time in this role is quickly coming to an end. He also almost muffed another punt late in the game at a time when a turnover could have cemented the Patriots' near comeback.

    The fact is that Ginn offers absolutely nothing as the fourth receiver. Considering that the 49ers rarely ever put three receivers on the field at once, let alone four, he has no value whatsoever if he isn't excelling as a punt returner.

    Quite frankly, there really isn't much reason to keep him around any longer. If LaMichael James can prove that he can handle punt-return duties, then Ginn becomes totally obsolete. After his shaky performances the last couple of weeks, I expect the 49ers coaching staff to give James every opportunity in practice to prove that he can handle punts as well as kickoffs. Don't be surprised if Ginn isn't even an active player next week.

Winner: Colin Kaepernick

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    Colin Kaepernick is The Real Deal, plain and simple. Will he develop into a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback when all is said and done? That remains to be seen, but he's proven that he belongs in the starting role and he won't be relinquishing that position anytime soon, barring injury.

    The nature of the NFL demands that quarterbacks be able to make plays, and this guy can make plays. Going into Foxboro and turning in the performance that he did has all but guaranteed that he will start every game for the 49ers from here on out.

    Granted, he was provided with some short fields against the Patriots, but whereas Alex Smith had shown a maddening tendency to turn short fields into long David Akers field goals, Kaepernick turned them into four touchdown passes against a defense that has been playing extremely well the last few weeks. His gain is Alex Smith's loss, but it is also the 49ers' gain as well.

Loser: Alex Smith

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    Alex Smith has proven over the last two seasons that he is not a loser, per se, but he has lost the starting position and that earns him a spot on the wrong side of this list. In fact, he didn't even really "lose" the starting role as much as it was taken from him.

    Regardless of how Smith found himself on the bench, he isn't getting off of it this season. And that's all that really needs to be said about this matter. His situation is unfortunate for him, but for the 49ers, it's a very fortuitous situation they find themselves in, having two capable quarterbacks. 

    But Kaepernick's physical talent, along with his ability to translate that talent into wins thus far, speaks for itself. Res ipsa loquitor.

Winner: Starting Defensive Linemen

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    The 49ers were able to get a lot of pressure on Tom Brady in the first half and it paid off well. When the score was still 31-3, the defensive line was looking like the early MVP of the game.

    And then Justin Smith got injured and in came a combination of backup linemen that failed to get any significant pressure on Brady until the last series of the game. Will Tukuafa and Ricky Jean-Francois looked incapable of of even causing Brady to flinch despite the Patriots being in a pure passing mode.

    Tonight we all saw a very glaring example of why the 49ers need a healthy Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald if they expect to reach the Promised Land. In short, no starting pass-rusher on the 49ers is in danger of losing their job to a backup the way Alex Smith lost his to Colin Kaepernick. 

    It may sound odd to declare a player like Justin Smith, who missed a large chunk the second half, a winner after tonight's game, but his absence boldly underlined his importance to the team while also exposing a major weakness on this defense: a lack of depth along the D-line.

    In short, as the starting unit goes, so goes the 49ers' season. 

Loser: 2nd-String Defensive Linemen

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    The uptempo, no-huddle offense frequently employed by the Patriots underscored a serious deficiency on the league's best defense. While the 49ers may have won the game, the lack of depth along this line is officially on tape now and will be exploited by teams capable of employing a no-huddle offense that keeps the defensive linemen on the field play after play.

    Without quality backups who can be rotated in at every possible chance when a team is trying to speed up the offensive tempo, the 49ers are very vulnerable. In the NFL no second-stringer's job is safe, and that is especially true for the players used to compensate for the loss of Justin Smith.

    When Smith went out, Brady suddenly had all the time in the world to operate in the pocket. The 49ers have a lot of talent in the secondary, but not so much talent that they can survive with a quality quarterback standing in the pocket untouched on every passing play.

    With a possible 13 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the 49ers clearly need to address this depth issue, and there are at least a couple of defensive linemen currently on the roster who may now be considered expendable or replaceable. Any defensive lineman not named Smith or McDonald is officially on notice that their job is not safe when the offseason rolls around.

Winner: Next Year's Placekicker, and Possibly Even a Currently Unemployed One

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    David Akers has looked like absolute..............excrement the last several weeks. Thankfully, the game did not come down to a field-goal attempt with time expiring in regulation. If it did, based on Akers' recent performance, the 49ers would have been lucky to come away with a win.

    It did not come down to that, but Akers missed another very makable kick and his job status is tenuous at best. There have already been a couple of kickers brought in to work out for the 49ers and there may be more of them this week as well. So if you are an unemployed kicker sitting at home right now, make sure your phone bill is paid and you get good reception wherever you're at, because the 49ers very well may come calling this week.

Loser: David Akers

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    The above photo says it all. Harbaugh has his eye on Akers, and if he feels that someone off the street represents a better chance of winning than Akers does, Harbaugh will turn to him without thinking twice.

    Akers may survive this season, but his performance down the stretch leaves a lot to be desired and he definitely won't be on the 49ers next year. He may not be on any team next year. In fact, he may end up being one of those guys brought off the street in an attempt to replace or push out some other team's placekicker.

    In that case, he may end up being a winner again. But his job security at this point is almost non-existent and that makes him a loser as far as this article is concerned.