A wild back-and-forth ending gave the San Francisco 49ers the No. 5 seed in the NFC and a date with the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau in the Wild Card Round of the 2013-14 NFL playoffs.
Phil Dawson hit two field goals in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17, including a 40-yarder as time expired to give the Niners a thrilling 23-20 road victory.
Colin Kaepernick led the way for San Francisco with 310 passing yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and some money throws down the stretch, while Carson Palmer threw for 407 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
The 49ers exploded out of the gate. On their first three drives of the game, Dawson hit a 27-yard field goal and Kaepernick tossed touchdown throws to Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, giving them a 17-0 lead in the first quarter.
Boldin finished with 149 yards on nine receptions. Head coach Jim Harbaugh spoke about his performance after the game:
For perspective, the Cards—owners of one of the best defenses in the league—gave up just 10 points in Seattle last week and have allowed 14 or fewer points in seven games this year. That defense eventually woke up, though.
As the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch pointed out, the Niners offense sputtered after the first quarter:
San Francisco's first three possessions went 147 yards, while the next eight (all scoreless) went just 150. That gave Arizona enough time to slowly chip away at the lead.
Palmer connected with Jake Ballard for a one-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, and after a scoreless third quarter, Jay Feely knocked in a 49-yard field goal early in the fourth to cut the deficit to seven.
Feely couldn't come through midway through the fourth quarter, however, missing from 43 yards out. At that point, Palmer and the Cardinals offense decided to take matters into their own hands. With under six minutes remaining, they drove 60 yards in five plays, capping it off with a game-tying 34-yard score from Palmer to Andre Roberts:
Ironically, though, in a game of missed field goals, Phil Dawson and Feely exchanged three-pointers in the final two minutes. Dawson, who missed a chippy earlier, drilled a 56-yarder with 1:45 remaining, only for Palmer to drive right back down the field and set up Feely for the game-tying 43-yarder.
LaMichael James returned the ensuing kickoff 45 yards, and Kaepernick delivered a perfect strike to Quinton Patton for 29 yards. Dawson hit a 40-yarder as time ran out for the win.
If you need any more proof of the importance of special teams, look no further than this roller-coaster NFC West battle that knocked the 10-6 Cardinals out of playoff contention.
Colin Kaepernick, 49ers: A-
Kaepernick was once again in fine form on Sunday. Although the 49ers' offense as a whole began slowing down considerably after the first quarter, he moved the ball efficiently (9.1 yards per throw) when possible and took care of the ball when nothing else was available.
For his efforts, he entered the NFL record books:
Oh, and he also made throws like this:
This may not have been the third-year QB's best performance of the season, but consider the circumstances. Needing a win on the road against a really strong defense and playing essentially without a run game, Kaepernick didn't turn the ball over, played under control and made some nice plays both inside and outside the pocket.
Two go-ahead drives in the final minutes don't hurt, either.
Carson Palmer, Cardinals: B+
Palmer certainly isn't completely safe from criticism. He missed some throws, and his interception, which led to a short Niners touchdown drive, was especially costly.
But Palmer got better as the game wore on and set an NFL record, himself:
When he was given time to operate in the pocket—which, credit to Arizona's offensive line, happened often—the enigmatic QB was able to move the ball with ease.
He utilized dangerous weapons Michael Floyd (six catches, 91 yards) and Larry Fitzgerald (six catches, 113 yards), threw the ball with accuracy, delivered an absolute dime on the game-tying touchdown throw to Roberts and was clutch down the stretch.
Palmer still had his head-scratching moments, but he put the Cardinals in position to win.
NaVorro Bowman, 49ers: A
Bowman wasn't about to waste his last chance at improving his Defensive Player of the Year resume.
Last week's defensive hero was once again spectacular. Not only did he lead the Niners in tackles, making plays all over the field, but he also recorded a sack and was responsible for both takeaways in the game—picking Palmer in the first quarter and completely ripping the ball from Rashard Mendenhall in the third.
It's hard for one player to make a bigger impact on defense.
The 49ers head to Green Bay for a rematch with the Packers in the Wild Card Round, while the Cardinals' impressive season ends at 10-6.