San Francisco 49ers: 10 Takeaways from Niners Win vs. Patriots on SNF
As the San Francisco 49ers traveled to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts for a Sunday Night Football showdown with the New England Patriots, there was plenty of chatter regarding just how the 49ers would match up against one of the league's best.
New England had won seven games in a row before Sunday night's game and had dominated the Houston Texans the week before. San Francisco seemed to be their next target as they continued their late surge.
Yet the 49ers beat the Patriots in front of a hostile crowd in bad weather. While the win over the AFC East Division Champions seemed impressive, the 49ers suffered numerous setbacks and missed opportunities.
For the fans, it was a tremendous game to watch, but here are 10 items that can be deduced from the 49ers win.
Colin Kaepernick Will Remain San Francisco's Starting Quarterback
Before Sunday night's game, the debate between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick was still heated. Kaepernick put a lot of doubts to rest with his performance Sunday night.
Kaepernick threw for a total of 216 yards, including four touchdown passes. Of his four touchdowns, two were to wide receiver Michael Crabtree. In addition, Kaepernick was able to rush for 28 total yards including a 19-yard scramble in the second quarter.
There is no doubt that Kaepernick is still raw. His lone interception in the early stages of the third quarter was a poor decision. In addition, he struggled with snaps over center.
Yet Kaepernick continues to display his big-play ability. Combined with his strong arm as well as his rushing capabilities, Kaepernick has shown why he belongs in the starting role. He now has a quarterback rating over 100 in three of his five starts, and his strong showing against a top opponent like New England further solidifies the case.
It may have felt like a playoff game and Kaepernick was not short on the experience. “It's a big stage to come out here and play tonight,” the young 49ers signal-caller said, “but at the same time you have to approach it like it's any other game and try to get this win so we could get where we want to be for the playoffs (49ers.com).”
While his performance may signal the end of the Alex Smith era in San Francisco, there is no doubt that the potential for stardom lies within Kaepernick's grasp.
49ers Won the Pace Battle
The Patriots are known for their ability to dictate the pace of the game. Their dynamic offense, led by quarterback Tom Brady, has been the epitome of a team that can keep opponents' defenses off balance and guessing.
Yet the 49ers were able to utilize excellent man coverage against New England's receiving core. The Patriots struggled, especially on third downs, for the first half and Brady never seemed to get into a comfortable rhythm until much later in the game.
Most importantly, the 49ers were able to play the game on their terms for the first half while getting out to an impressive 31-3 lead. The defense was solid, the offense was good and special teams mostly did their part.
While Brady was able to engineer his own impressive comeback to tie the game at 31 late in the fourth quarter, it was too little, too late.
Jim Harbaugh Is Losing Faith in Kicker David Akers.
One season removed from his NFL record-setting year, kicker David Akers has had his fair share of struggles in 2012. With two missed overtime field goals against the Rams in Weeks 10 and 13, there emerged some doubt as to whether or not he had lost his edge.
Akers missed another field goal Sunday night in New England.
The 39-yard attempt from the New England 21-yard line was by no means easy, given the conditions at Gillette Stadium. Yet this was a kick that Akers would have probably made the year before with ease.
While he did connect for two field goals, including one at the end of the game to help seal the 49ers win, his lack of execution has to be a cause for concern.
Harbaugh elected to go for it on a 4th-and-1 play to start off the second quarter. San Francisco was well within Akers' reach at the New England 25-yard line, and considering Harbaugh's tendency to not leave points off the board, it was surprising to see the offense stay on the field. Kaepernick fumbled the snap and although he recovered it, the 49ers did not reach the first down marker and turned the ball over on downs.
Could this alter Harbaugh's decision making in regards to Akers' use moving forward?
Defense Wins Championships
Defense wins championships.
That statement, while often cliched and overused, appeared to ring true Sunday night. While this game was not for any trophy, there is a real possibility that the 49ers/Patriots matchup could very well be a Super Bowl preview.
With that being said, the 49ers defense showed why it is one of the best in the game. They came into Sunday night's game ranked second overall in the league and added to their legacy against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
In addition to keeping Tom Brady out of sync during the first half, the 49ers defense was able to win the crucial turnover battle. Brady was intercepted twice in addition to three forced fumbles, two of which were recovered by San Francisco. The Patriots, on the other hand, were only able to intercept Kaepernick once and recover one fumble from Delanie Walker.
49ers cornerback Carlos Rodgers commented about the turnovers by saying, “We focused on getting the turnovers. Any time we knock that ball out, get a pick, we give our offense more opportunity to score and put the ball in the end zone (49ers.com).”
The 49ers also were able to put pressure on Tom Brady throughout most of the game and their defensive backs matched up well against New England's receiving core in man coverage.
Even though New England was able to stage a tremendous comeback to tie the game late, the defense had already done its job, giving San Francisco an excellent chance to come away with a win against a top-tier opponent.
Aldon Smith Is a Stud
Aldon Smith continues to be a force on the gridiron.
As he closes in on Michael Strahan's single season sack record of 22.5, Smith is starting to show that he is capable of doing more than just sacking the quarterback.
His presence on the field forces opponents' offensive lines to respect where he is at all times, knowing full well that his uncanny abilities can create significant problems. Even if Smith is unable to reach the quarterback, he is often able to put pressure on the passer and force him to throw early or rush out of the pocket. In addition, offensive lines are often forced to provide additional coverage on him, opening the door for other members of the 49ers defensive line to rush the quarterback.
Smith was unable to record a sack Sunday night. However, the mere threat of him on the field certainly aided both Ray McDonald and Ricky Jean-Francois to muster a total of three sacks.
It also helps to note that Smith recorded his first interception of the season on Sunday.
49ers Tight Ends Will Be a Critical Key to Postseason Success
There is no doubt that the 49ers have one of the best tight ends in the NFL today in Vernon Davis. His sheer speed and size create many problems for opposing teams' defense.
Yet San Francisco also has another potent tight end in Delanie Walker. Walker is similar in build to Davis and while he may not possess the same blazing speed, he does have many of the same attributes that makes him a force on the field.
Both Davis and Walker are excellent run blockers, allowing the 49er running game to be effective in this era of "pass first" offenses.
In addition, both are more than capable of creating mismatches in the opponent's backfield. These mismatches were well exploited by San Francisco on Sunday night.
Walker was utilized by Kaepernick twice, and despite an early fumble, Walker was able to bounce back in the second quarter by making a 34-yard touchdown reception. Davis had set up the mismatch in coverage by running up the center of the field, allowing Walker to get some separation.
If the 49ers expect to advance far into the postseason, expect this formula to be counted upon again.
Michael Crabtree Has Emerged
When the 49ers drafted wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the first round of the 2009 draft, they were hoping to get an explosive playmaker that would help bolster their receiving core. A foot injury in 2011 hampered his development, but Crabtree continued to improve year after year following his rookie season.
Now in 2012, Crabtree has come about as the top 49ers wide receiver and a favorite target for Colin Kaepernick, especially in third-down situations. He is already on pace to surpass his career-high receiving yards total from last year and has set a personal best with seven touchdown receptions (cbssports.com).
Two of those touchdowns came in Sunday's game.
Kaepernick found Crabtree at the 10:21 mark in the third quarter and again with 6:25 left in the fourth. Crabtree's second touchdown reception was critical as it broke the tie following the Patriot's remarkable comeback.
Crabtree totalled seven receptions for 107 yards during the game. His speed and ability to break tackles has given him the potential to add to the vital yards after the catch. Furthermore, it allows the 49ers offense to be even more dynamic and make other teams respect not only their running game, but the passing game as well.
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure
The 49ers are going to face good quarterbacks in the playoffs. It is even plausible to suggest they may face Tom Brady again if both teams make it to the Super Bowl.
With that stated, the 49ers showed that they are capable of throwing an elite NFL quarterback off his game. Brady was inconsistent and frustrated for the entire first half of Sunday's game. The Patriots offense struggled in third down situations and had mustered a mere field goal by halftime.
Limiting Brady was undoubtedly a big part of the 49ers' game plan. The excellent press coverage in the backfield along with the 49ers' pass rush certainly exceeded all expectations before the half.
Despite seeing the success that pressure can bring, the 49ers also learned what elite quarterbacks can do when pressure is absent.
The comeback that New England mustered during the latter phases of the second half almost spelled a complete 49er meltdown. Brady finally seemed to find his rhythm and at that point, San Francisco's defense looked both tired and nervous.
Brady eventually finished the night having thrown for 443 yards and one touchdown, along with another rushing touchdown (cbssports.com). While his performance was not enough to secure a monumental comeback win for the Patriots, the 49ers have taken note as to what they need to do moving forward.
Avoid Mistakes of Your Own and Capitalize on the Mistakes of Opponents
Jim Harbaugh spoke of the 49ers 41-34 victory over New England.
"Our team has now hung in in a lot of big-time pressure games," Harbaugh said. "They've overcome adversity. They've shown they can do that (via cbssports.com)."
With that being said, the 49ers could have played much better.
Even when they were dominating in the first half, San Francisco had plenty of mistakes and missed opportunities to consider. Tight end Delanie Walker's first quarter fumble in the Patriots' red zone cost the 49ers a key scoring opportunity. Granted, San Francisco forced a punt on the following drive but when San Francisco again tried to answer on their subsequent possession, a field goal attempt by David Akers missed wide left.
Colin Kaepernick also struggled with snaps over center. While the 49ers were able to recover all of his fumbles, such mistakes can be costly.
There were also key penalties against San Francisco that proved costly. A pass interference penalty on cornerback Tarell Brown cost the 49ers 38 yards and set up New England at the 49ers' 5-yard line. The Patriots would score a touchdown the next play.
The 49ers also allowed the Patriots to claw their way back in the second half, something teams can ill-afford to do when facing an opponent as tough as New England.
Yet San Francisco was also able to capitalize on numerous miscues by New England.
Kaepernick took advantage of the Patriots' weak defensive backfield as shown by his four touchdown receptions, the shortest of which was 24 yards (cbssports.com).
In addition, the 49ers defense forced four turnovers and scored points off two of them.
San Francisco also capitalized on New England penalties, most notably during the second quarter when Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib committed a costly pass interference penalty on Michael Crabtree, moving the 49ers offense into New England territory. San Francisco would find the end zone later that drive.
Simply stated, the 49ers need to practice "more of the good" and "less of the bad" if they expect postseason success.
There Are More Important Things Than Football
While Sunday night's showdown between two Super Bowl contending teams proved to be an exciting game to watch, fans and players alike were reminded before and during the game that football comes second to one thing:
In the wake of the tragedy felt by the citizens in Newtown, Connecticut and across the nation, fans bonded together to remember and honor the victims before the kickoff.
A ceremony was held with a moment of silence while flares were ignited to honor each of the 26 victims lost during the Sandy Hook shooting.
The television broadcast of the game was also interrupted in order to cover the President's speech at a multi-faith service in Newtown.
Regardless of the game's outcome, the incident serves as a reminder that life is precious and that resiliency is a trait everyone must share.