Needless to say, in this roller-coaster season in 2013, the San Francisco 49ers have had some dramatic finishes. And though it always hasn't been pretty, this ballclub has found a way to win time and time again, which is even more of a statement as a 12-4 team.
They just won't quit.
In Sunday's nail-biter, coach Jim Harbaugh and his mighty Niners managed to pull off one last road victory to finish the regular season with the NFL’s longest win streak at six straight. The rival Arizona Cardinals were overwhelmed early on and couldn't do enough to recover in the final minutes, resulting in their playoff elimination and San Francisco clinching a No. 5 seed.
And despite the tight finish, there were a lot of positives to take away from this 49ers win.
The never-say-die attitude and big-play spurts suggests this could still be the hot team entering the 2013-14 NFL playoffs. And they'll need to be if they're going to emerge from a wild-card spot. After this past week's game, did the 49ers look to be in playoff form?
The following will break down what we liked and didn't like from San Francisco's season finale.
Starting off hot, the 49ers scored a whopping 17 points in the first quarter but failed to score or even sniff the end zone after that.
They finished the game 3-of-13 on third down and 0-of-1 on fourth down. There were several questionable situation calls, particularly on 3rd-and-short and inside the red zone. The most notable of which was Anthony Dixon garnering carries over Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
Dixon had two carries on key downs for negative-five yards.
This has been a perpetual issue, as the offense has failed to put teams away when the defense comes out strong. Slowly, as the offense stammers, the 49ers defense spends more time on the field, becomes tired and then slowly but surely lets the opponent make enough plays to get back in the game.
The offense's shortcomings in this regard have had a profound ripple effect.
If the offense cannot get this corrected—or it doesn’t have anything up its sleeve for the playoffs—the 49ers will be at risk of getting eliminated. This is the one character flaw that could end them. All things considered, the 49ers were pretty lucky to come away with a win in Week 17.
Though the sample size was small, as was the player, 49ers rookie wideout Quinton Patton had a heck of a game.
Even though he filled in for Mario Manningham (knee) last week—who has officially been injured reserved for the season—this was Patton’s first real game getting in a groove as the No. 3 receiver. This will be remembered as his coming-out party.
Patton was targeted three times, hauling in two tough catches for 34 yards.
He also had a carry on an end around that went for 26 yards down the right side, as he was moving and shaking in traffic to advance the ball. Overall, Patton finished the game with three total touches for 60 yards from scrimmage, averaging 20.0 yards per touch.
His most signature play was easily his monster 22-yard reception over the defender near the sideline, setting up Phil Dawson’s game-winning field goal.
It was a very strong showing for the 49ers receiver, making fans and analysts wonder what he could do with more targets and a bigger role in the offense. This was just the kind of thing that San Francisco needed to see before its first road playoff game.
All season, the offense has been desperate for an unknown to step up and complement the stars. Patton might be it.
49ers All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman had one of the strongest finishes of any defensive player in the NFL this year.
And it was a stellar season throughout—one that saw him rack up 145 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles, two interceptions and nine pass deflections.
There aren’t many players, defensive or not, who are in the zone like he is right now. Not only does it reinforce Bowman’s argument for 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but it also gives San Francisco another hot player going into the playoffs.
That’s what’s most important.
He is such an asset, and with his ability to stop the run, track down mobile quarterbacks, defend the pass and pass rush, the 49ers have this dominant multifaceted weapon.
And moreover, Bowman’s proclivity for making big plays and closing games has made this a more dynamic defense overall.
On Sunday, he epitomized his season, coming up with a hat trick of an interception, a sack and a forced/recovered fumble.
Bowman also led the 49ers on the day with 10 tackles.
Following the radical declines of Ted Ginn Jr., and then Kyle Williams at the return position, the 49ers finally have someone reliable back there.
Though his role on offense has been nonexistent, second-year pro running back LaMichael James has carved out a niche on special teams and is doing quite well at it. He's aggressive. He's explosive. He finishes runs. And he's safe with the football.
So far, so good for James.
On Sunday, he had another very solid contribution in a field-position game, returning three punts for 45 yards (15.0 YPR). He also took two kick returns out, rocking a 31.0 yards-per-attempt average. James is dynamic, and he helps the 49ers win three-phase football games.
This is another body they'll be able to rely on in the postseason.
In a game against the Cards where the team's star tailback Frank Gore was a non-factor, Kap picked up 334 all-purpose yards passing and two passing touchdowns (111.2 QB rating), including 171 yards in the air in the first half.
He was taking what the defense gave him, he was able to spread the ball and he didn't make costly mistakes.
And between his big arm and the yards-after-catch ability from his receivers, Kaepernick averaged 9.1 yards per attempt, taking chunks of field at a time.
This performance just further eradicates the questions about him earlier in the season, building on his hot streak since wide receiver Michael Crabtree has been back in the mix. Outside the home game versus the Seattle Seahawks in Week 14, the 49ers quarterback has had a 108.6 QB rating or higher in five of these past six wins.
He had 10 touchdowns to one interception in that span.
Add in how much more comfortable he looks as a runner, and the 49ers are getting everything they need out of Kaepernick right now.
Not so surprisingly, the play of the 49ers place-kicker was relevant in this game.
All-Pro Phil Dawson had been having a tremendous season, nailing 27 field goals in a row, which was a franchise record.
But early on, when San Francisco's offense was in the depths of its struggles, Dawson hooked a 24-yard chip shot, ending the streak. It was deflating.
Was Dawson down? Sure, but not out. He returned to follow that miss up with a clutch 56-yard boot, giving the 49ers back the lead when the teams were tied at 17-all. Then, when it came down to a tie game with just seconds left, Dawson, cool as a cucumber, drilled a 41-yard game-winner.
More than anything else, it is good to know that Dawson is not only a master of his craft, but that he is incredibly headstrong.
Field position and providing as many opportunities as possible has been the name of the game for the San Francisco 49ers.
They've done this with terrific special teams, which is backed by All-Pro punting and a nearly perfect coverage unit.
Punter Andy Lee and his minions in C.J. Spillman, Michael Wilhoite and Ray Ventrone have been pivotal members of the 49ers punt-and-cover team, pinning teams back pretty consistently and making big plays, which have changed games.
And when they come off the field, the big bad 49ers defense comes trotting out. They're the tightest unit in the league in that they're aggressive, fast to the football and they clamp down over the course of the game. With star power and well-coached talent at every level of the unit's infrastructure, they swarm and make big plays.
However exciting an offense, this is a defensive team.
Their ace in the hole going forward is they're comfortable knowing that their opponent isn't likely to score more than 17 or 20 points on them. It's also a certainty that the defense and special teams is going to make plays to position the offense to do enough to win the game.
This is why the 49ers are scary.
This has to be the big story heading into the postseason.
For the San Francisco 49ers, their shortcomings in the past two postseason runs has been at the wide receiver position (and special teams). As of now, it appears that the front office has remedied both issues, but most importantly, the team found a capable wide receiver to carry the load when Crabtree is blanketed by the defense.
With or without Crabtree, mercenary wideout and future Hall of Famer Anquan Boldin was able to become that guy in 2013, finally giving San Francisco what may have been the missing piece these past two years.
This week, he was able to shoulder the brunt of the work again, catching nine of 11 targets for 149 yards and a touchdown. No surprise, he was been an absolute animal from snap to whistle, flat-out embarrassing several younger, talented defensive backs.
This year, he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark, breaking a dry spell going back to his last year with the Arizona Cardinals in 2009. His final numbers for 2013 read as 85 grabs for 1,179 yards and seven scores. So, finally, the 49ers have two No. 1 guys.
Having both Crabtree and Boldin will be problematic for defenses in the postseason, especially since Kaepernick is finding them both.