49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick got his first win versus the Seattle Seahawks.
Guess which team suddenly has a pulse as we head down the season's home stretch?
Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, particularly teams in their own conference, it's the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers (9-4). With a strong display of offense, defense and special teams, the 49ers were able to derail the 11-2 Seattle Seahawks, who were riding a seven-game win streak.
This was a validating moment for coach Jim Harbaugh's squad and their never-say-die mentality.
As the team continues to take shape late in the year, and player chemistry and game flow develop all over the roster, the Niners are proving they're not out yet and could even still emerge as one of the favorites entering the postseason.
They've got it all—they're tough, balanced and well-coached. With the season they've had, they've got something to prove and now have the tools to do it.
Based on how its season has played out, there was an idea early on that San Francisco could mature into some sort of monster of a contender late in the season with all the additions. With a colossal statement win over the 'Hawks in Week 14, the 49ers appear to be justifying that notion.
Let's take a look at the most important takeaways from their latest win.
This past week, the 49ers entered the red zone four times and had to settle for four Phil Dawson field goals, only benefiting from one eight-yard touchdown to tight end Vernon Davis. This is not far from the norm for them either.
That means the offense is only likely to score a touchdown on one of every five red-zone attempts.
While the field goals all add up, it is dangerous when you let a worthy opponent hang around in a football game.
The 49ers were not as lucky in Week 10, scoring three straight field goals to start the game, only to allow the Carolina Panthers to win 10-9. Just like in that matchup, the 49ers were always just one bad play from giving the game away to the Seahawks. They just couldn’t capitalize.
Altogether, the Niners left a lot of points on the field, coming up short in a number of scoring situations. If you look at the drives they put together, they could’ve potentially routed the Seahawks this time around. The offense was just a little out of sync and has continued to struggle in the red zone.
The 49ers have to find a way to get this fixed so that they’re not exposed versus better scoring teams in the playoffs.
It wouldn't be a 49ers game without a field goal in their first red zone trip anyway.— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) December 8, 2013
Where would the 49ers be without Phil Dawson, right?
According to the team’s Public Relations Director Bob Lange, All-Pro place-kicker Phil Dawson set a franchise record with 19 straight field goals. His streak includes booming kicks from 53, 55 and 52 yards out. The icing on the cake this season was his game-winner over Seattle.
On Sunday, Dawson went 5-of-5 from the field, knocking in four field goals and one point-after attempt (accounting for 13 of the team's 19 points).
But with 26 seconds remaining, down one point in the game, Dawson nailed a make-or-break chip shot from 22 yards out. That’s a clutch kick and one the 49ers now know their guy can make, which is particularly comforting for the organization after dealing with the downward spiral of David Akers.
Dawson looks like he’s on his way to a second consecutive All-Pro nod and perhaps another short-term contract with the 49ers.
Game winner pic.twitter.com/kgIxJ5BUMr— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) December 9, 2013
This duo hasn't quite blossomed yet, but we’re really beginning to see the advantages of having two capable wide receivers on every play.
Remember, this is the first time the 49ers have had a capable tandem since Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. These past two weeks have been new and experimental.
With Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, the 49ers have been able to pick and choose their matchups and avoid the strong links in the opposition's secondary. This past week, San Francisco was almost completely able to avoid Seattle stars Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
With Sherman shadowing Crabtree, Boldin was left to power through and box out talented yet younger and less experienced corners in Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane.
Anquan Boldin on DBs playing physical: "If guys want to pretend to be tough, I look forward to it."— Scott Kegley (@ScottKegley) December 9, 2013
And when Sherman, the team’s No. 1 cornerback, figured that he had his side locked down and Colin Kaepernick was going to stop targeting him, the 49ers quarterback took his chances. Crabtree was able to pick up 40 receiving yards to add to the 60-plus he had last week.
It was smart matchup football in the passing game, where San Francisco was able to take what the defense gave it.
This resulted in another big day for Boldin, which has become a pattern since Mario Manningham and Crabtree have returned from injury. The veteran receiver caught six balls on eight targets for 93 yards and, most importantly, kept the chains moving.
Slowly but surely, the 49ers' passing game is beginning to open up.
While Michael Crabtree probably isn't full speed yet, his presence on the field prevents the Seahawks from being able to triple team Boldin.— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) December 4, 2013
Despite the constant struggle to convert third downs, while also failing to consistently score touchdowns in red-zone situations, the 49ers offense had a very balanced look and veered on the creative side.
By the look of it, offensive coordinator Greg Roman had dug deep—circa 2011—into the playbook.
There was a distinct look to this offense again and some of the things that it threw at Seattle—and when—really inspired confidence.
Some of the quick hitters off combo routes were simple and well-executed, and that kept the offense moving. Seeing as how the 49ers have more than one wide receiver now that can defeat bump-and-run, these play designs work again.
It was also wise to get Kendall Hunter involved more, giving him some timely carries.
One of the big plays late was a designed quarterback sweep for Colin Kaepernick that looked eerily familiar:
Greg Roman said Kaepernick's 8-yard run at game's end shoulda looked familiar. Virtually same one Alex Smith ran v. Saints in '11 playoffs.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) December 9, 2013
This was a gutsy third-down call by Roman that provided a convoy of blockers for Kaepernick, who patiently took the ball around the left end to move the chains. In a season where the team’s OC has been on the hot seat, this was easily one of his better play calls of the season.
There was another very astute call by Roman that had been used in 2011, though it was not as memorable as the one versus the New Orleans Saints.
On Sunday, the 49ers ran a tight end throwback screen to Vernon Davis—a play that pulls the defense to the opposite side of where the ball is going with a bootleg and the blocking direction of the offensive line.
All the while, the tight end sells the block and leaks out to the open area, upon which time the quarterback throws across the field. On more than a couple of occasions, the Niners have run this and it winds up with an uncovered Davis making the catch and rumbling for extra yards.
For San Francisco’s sake, hopefully this is the direction Roman will be headed in over the final stretch of the season.
The 49ers had their second blocked punt of the season on Sunday. It’s only the third time in the club’s history that the 49ers have had two or more in a season. According to Bob Lange, the last instance was in 1975.
Newcomers Kassim Osgood and Craig Dahl were the two gunners to do so. They’ve been solid contributors all season, helping this special teams unit become one of the best in the league again.
The Niners spent a lot of time handpicking a new corps of players to revamp Brad Seely’s unit, which had fallen off since losing players like Larry Grant, Blake Costanzo and Colin Jones.
Along with Osgood and Dahl, Ray Ventrone has been one of the more consistent contributors, coming up big this week with a timely hit on the Seattle return man late in the game. In addition to Eric Wright, undrafted free-agent cornerback Daryl Morris has also gotten involved.
And of course, C.J. Spillman has continued to captain the Tony Montana Squad.
They’ve been a perfect complement to strong defensive performances, helping the 49ers with field position when the offense is stuck in neutral.
With All-Pro punter Andy Lee back there and this assembly of gunners, the 49ers' special teams unit may be one of the best in the NFL.
“After he gets through the hole, it’s just what he sees. He’s on his own,” center Jonathan Goodwin told Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News about Frank Gore's 51-yard run up the middle.
It was Gore’s longest rush of the season by 17 yards.
The 49ers’ star running back has had a bit of an up-and-down season, but one that has seen mostly highs. After starting slow and getting hot in the bridge of the season, Gore had simmered down over the last few games heading into a match with the Seattle Seahawks.
Surprisingly, against weaker run defenses, he hadn’t surpassed 50 rushing yards in the past three weeks. Without Mike Iupati (knee) in the lineup, a lot of people were wondering how productive he could actually be.
Seattle is also amid the better teams around versus the run.
For most of the game, Gore averaged between 3.5 and 3.8 yards per carry, which is pretty solid versus the ‘Hawks defense. But late in the game, when the 49ers had to have it, Gore patiently let his blocks develop and found a seam in the defense with his great vision.
The monstrous gainer set up the game-winning field goal and put Gore over 100 rushing yards (6.5 YPC). With the win, the team moved to 28-7 all-time when Gore surpasses the century mark in rushing yards.
When it comes down to it, he is still the centerpiece of the offense and clearly its most influential player.
#49ers RB Frank Gore: "If you want to be the team that gets to the tournament and gets the trophy, you’ve got to take the north direction"— Cam Inman (@CamInman) December 9, 2013
On a fast track to the postseason, San Francisco’s ace in the hole is this impermeable defensive unit led by five-time All-Pro linebacker and team captain Patrick Willis. He is the nucleus of the defense, but Willis is just one of many components in this 3-4 system that helps win up front in the box.
With Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner, there is talent and leadership at every level of the defensive infrastructure, and they are backed by a strong corps of young supporting players.
Altogether, it is a group that is very well-coached.
On Sunday, the 49ers held the Seahawks to just 17 points, which was their third-lowest total of the season and lowest in a loss.
In two games against San Francisco this season, Russell Wilson—the quarterback many have deemed an NFL MVP candidate—has thrown two touchdowns to two interceptions. He does not have a passer rating above 82.0 versus the 49ers defense this year.
They also survived the perils of Marshawn Lynch this time around. Beast Mode only had 72 yards with a 3.6 yards-per-carry average.
Impressively enough, in the past 96 games, San Francisco has allowed just nine 100-yard performances from a back—none of which have come this season. The Niners are consistent, intimidating and championship-caliber.
Justin Smith didn't show up on the stat sheet, but he sure did when watching the game.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) December 9, 2013
At 9-4, the 49ers are still teetering between a playoff berth as a wild-card team and being “in the hunt.”
The Philadelphia Eagles were able to get a big win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, but fortunately for the Niners, Carolina lost to New Orleans. However, there are a number of teams hot on their trail and they still have to play the Arizona Cardinals again in the season finale.
Their last three games are crucial for playoff seeding, simply because they cannot count on other teams losing their games.
They have to anticipate the Eagles, Cowboys and Cardinals finishing strong. The upcoming schedule for San Francisco includes an away game versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then a home contest against the Atlanta Falcons before heading to Phoenix to play the Cardinals.
They can really begin looking at the rest of this in a positive light, riding a three-game win streak, which includes a victory over the so-called best team in the National Football League.
Had the 49ers lost on Sunday, we’d be having a much different discussion. They pulled off a must-win, reestablishing their presence as contenders.
So, with two soft opponents in the next three games, there’s reason to be excited.
Donte Whitner said Sunday vs. Seattle felt like the postseason: "When playoff time comes, you have to look out for the 49ers."— Lindsay Jones (@bylindsayhjones) December 9, 2013
Offensive line? Check.
Tight ends? Check.
Wide receivers? Check.
Running backs? Check.
Stingy defense that gets off the field? Check.
And, hey, the coaching staff and special teams unit aren't too shabby either.
As the 49ers look to finish strong in Weeks 15-17, and hopefully into the playoffs, the team is waiting on that final piece to tie it all together: Colin Kaepernick.
While the 49ers quarterback has played more proficient football since getting his weapons back on offense, he needs to get back to being a weapon himself, making this offense nearly undefendable.
With all the pieces back in place, the spotlight shifts to Kap going forward—particularly in regard to the tempo of his play.
People will be looking to see if he delivers, raising the play of those around him and putting the offense in winnable situations. And will that killer instinct return in the process?
This past game was not a good indicator of that because the 49ers had to play smart football versus the Seahawks and weren't afforded a lot of room to take chances.
But against Tampa Bay, Atlanta and eventually Arizona—Kap torched the Cards in Week 17 last year—can the 49ers signal-caller get hot going into the postseason?