49ers vs. Cardinals: San Francisco's Biggest Winners and Losers from Week 17
The contest featured some good plays but also a great deal of inconsistency. San Francisco had plenty of chances to put the game away early but were unable to do so.
The Vikings' win gives the 49ers the second-best record in the NFC and the resultant first-round bye. The bye is a huge benefit, as it gives the team more time to heal their bodies and prepare for their playoff opponent.
Let's take a look at the winners and losers for the 49ers in this game.
Loser No. 5: Alex Smith
If you look at Alex Smith on the sidelines, you get the distinct feeling that although he is pulling for his teammates, he is very unhappy. The joy and positive body language is gone, and Smith looks like he is just biding his time until his departure.
Barring an injury to Colin Kaepernick, Smith will most likely not see any meaningful action again as a 49er.
Smith got in for a cameo appearance late in the fourth quarter, with the 49ers holding a 27-6 lead. He was greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation by the Niners fans. Smith completed his only pass for six yards to fullback Bruce Miller.
Smith has shown great perseverance as the 49ers' quarterback. He elected to stay in San Francisco when Jim Harbaugh became the head coach prior to the 2011 season. Harbaugh wooed Smith and made him believe he was the 49ers' main man.
It seemed like a match made in heaven as Smith flourished under Harbaugh and led the 49ers to a 13-3 record in 2011. He also brought them to the NFC title game, where a couple of botched punt return plays ended the 49ers' season.
Unfortunately for Smith, Harbaugh has moved on and changed his allegiance to Kaeprnick as the quarterback.
The business of football dictates that the 49ers will not keep Smith and pay his $7.5 million salary in 2013. The 49ers simply cannot afford to have a backup eating up that much of their salary cap.
Winner No. 5: 49ers' Coverage Units
The 49ers' coverage units have been maligned for much of the season. However, they have improved over the past few weeks, and the game against Arizona was another positive step.
The 49ers' coverage units are led by CJ Spillman and Larry Grant. This group had many problems early in the year but have shown great progress towards the end of the season.
Special teams coach Brad Seely was forced to incorporate defensive starters Dashon Goldson and NaVorro Bowman into the coverage units, but it ultimately paid off.
The Cardinals returned three punts for 17 yards. They also had five kickoff returns and the coverage unit held them to an average starting position at the 22-yard line.
Loser No. 4: Mario Manningham
Mario Manningham was injured last week as the 49ers lost to the Seattle Seahawks. On the play, Colin Kaepernick pumped and hesitated on the short throw to Manningham. This allowed the Seahawks' defenders to close quickly on Manningham, who also juggled the ball.
Manningham was hit low, and his knee was destroyed as he suffered a torn ACL and PCL. This is a career-threatening injury, and it's questionable whether Manningham will ever be the same.
Manningham was moved to the IR prior to the game against the Cardinals. His season has ended with 42 receptions for 449 yards and one touchdown.
Speed and quickness are Manningham's greatest asset, and he may never return to the level he had prior to the injury.
Winner No. 4: LaMichael James
LaMichael James had a very productive game as a 49er. He gained 49 yards rushing on seven carries. James also had one kickoff return for 33 yards.
The emergence of James is critical for the 49ers as they move forward to the playoffs. He is a quick, shifty runner whenever he gets his hands on the ball.
James provides a great change of pace from Frank Gore. His explosiveness is outstanding, and if he's effective, it gives the 49ers a chance to rest Gore periodically.
Loser No. 3: Chris Culliver
Chris Culliver is in his second season with the 49ers. He was selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft. Culliver plays as the 49ers' nickelback and has generally done a good job.
However, against Arizona, Culliver was victimized by receiver Michael Floyd on two very similar pass patterns. They were basic out-and-up patterns, and Floyd easily beat Culliver once for 34 yards and the other time for 37 yards and a touchdown.
With the increased emphasis on passing in today's NFL, Culliver sees plenty of action as the nickel corner. Culliver better be ready because other teams will try similar patterns against him now that they have seen him give up two long gains.
Floyd also beat Tramaine Brock on another long gain, a 53-yard pass play, which set up the Cardinals' only touchdown.
Winner No. 3: Frank Gore
Frank Gore had a rather pedestrian game by his lofty standards. He carried the ball 20 times for 68 yards as well as a touchdown. Gore also had three receptions for 21 yards.
However, in one key drive in the second half, the 49ers went 12 plays and 72 yards for a score. It was on this drive that Gore shined the most.
Gore carried the ball six times for 32 yards and had two catches for an additional 19 yards. In total, he accounted for 51 of the 72 yards that the 49ers moved for the touchdown.
To culminate that drive, Gore powered his way for a two-yard touchdown run, giving the 49ers a 24-6 lead. With that rushing touchdown—his 51st—Gore passed Roger Craig and Joe Perry for most rushing touchdowns as a 49er.
Gore is the heart and soul of the 49ers' offense. The extra week off will also do him a lot of good as he readies himself for the postseason.
Loser No. 2: David Akers
David Akers missed his first two field-goal attempts of the day—first from 40 yards then 44 yards—as a cascade of boos rang down on him.
Akers has converted only 29 of his 42 field-goal attempts this year. His 13 misses are the most in the league.
Akers suffered through a groin strain for much of the season, which undoubtedly threw off his timing and confidence. In the past couple of weeks, he looked like he was getting stronger and hitting the ball with more authority.
However, against the Cardinals, not only did Akers miss the two early field-goal attempts, but his kickoffs were also shorter than normal. The ball did not seem to be coming off his foot well.
Akers did rebound to make two field goals in the second half. On one of those attempts, he was hit by a Cardinal rusher, who was blocked into him. Akers went down and was visibly shaken up.
The extra week off should help Akers recover and get his rhythm back. The 49ers need him to execute in the playoffs, as missed kicks can send a team home.
Winner No. 2: The 49ers Defense
The 49ers defense played a very solid game, albeit against a weak Arizona offense. They held the Cardinals to only 262 yards and 11 first downs. The 49ers also caused two turnovers, which is a welcome sight heading into the playoffs.
Arizona had only 23:57 in possession time compared with the 49ers' 36:03. Ricky Jean-Francois and Ahmad Brooks each recorded a sack.
The 49ers defense did allow a late-game touchdown reception by Michael Floyd, but that occurred late in the game with most of the starters on the bench.
The 49ers are a team built on their defense, and they must continue to be strong throughout the postseason. If the defense plays well, the 49ers have a chance to make it to their ultimate goal of a Super Bowl triumph.
Loser No. 1: A.J. Jenkins
The injuries to Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams have required the 49ers to make some offensive substitutions and give more playing time to certain players, such as Delanie Walker.
First-round draft selection A.J. Jenkins was expected to see more action in the game against the Cardinals. Although Jenkins was active and did get in on several plays, he made no impact. In reality, Jenkins has made no impact in any games this season.
Jenkins was targeted by Colin Kaepernick on one pass play. He was unable to come down with the ball, and it fell incomplete. Jenkins has not caught a single pass the entire season.
For a player to get in the game and see the ball coming his way, there needs to be a trust factor between the coaches and the quarterback. It is obvious that Jenkins has not yet earned that trust.
Winner No. 1: Michael Crabtree
Michael Crabtree arguably had his best game as a 49er. He had eight catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. Crabtree and Colin Kaepernick seem to have found an excellent rhythm, as he is typically Kaepernick's go-to receiver.
Crabtree has also developed an outstanding ability to make big plays with his run-after-the-catch yardage. He has become the No. 1 receiver the 49ers hoped for when they drafted him with the tenth selection of the 2009 NFL draft.
The other area of his game that has improved is his professionalism on the field. The "look-at-me" histrionics are a thing of the past, and Crabtree has become a much more team-oriented player.
The 49ers Enter the Playoffs with a Week off to Rest and Prepare
If the San Francisco 49ers make it to the Super Bowl, they need to send the Minnesota Vikings a thank you note. The Vikings victory over Green Bay gives the 49ers a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
This is a huge benefit for the players as they get to rest up and heal their banged up bodies. Four players should benefit most from the extra week of rest and preparation.
Frank Gore, David Akers and Justin Smith will all have more time to rest and recover. Colin Kaepernick will get an extra week of preparation time as he looks forward to his first starting opportunity in the postseason.
The 49ers will also play their first playoff game at home, and if Atlanta was to lose their game, the 49ers—with a win—would also play the NFC championship game in San Francisco.
The victory over Arizona and Green Bay's loss puts the 49ers in the best possible position they could have hoped for going into Week 17. The window of opportunity is open and now is the time for the 49ers to bust through and go all the way.