It should have been so much easier. More points were there for the taking. More chances to raise the personal and team statistics. Another chance to lay out more numbers that could be used to show the disbelievers that the 49ers are for real.
The most obvious observation in the 23-7 win is that the Niners did not play well. There were the two blocked field goals and a rare miss by David Akers in the first half. For a team that has excelled in special teams, that was a bad sign.
Add to that two errant throws to wide open receivers in the end zone by Alex Smith, and avid 49ers fans have to wonder if the “trap” was being set. In the end, however, it was a win. As we said before, there are no judges in the press box rating a team on “artistic merit.”
What it means is that the 9-1 49ers will get on a plane early Wednesday morning with the second-best record in the NFL. They are on an eight-game winning streak, the first since 1997. And for all that, people are scratching their heads. Are they for real? What happens if they play a strong offensive team, like Green Bay or New Orleans?
In the end, that’s what the playoffs are for. It’s not guaranteed that the 49ers will get a first-round bye in the playoffs. In fact these four things from the 23-7 win over the Cardinals opens up more questions about the rest of the season.
The word during training camp among many who have covered the 49ers was Kyle Williams (10) was ready for more playing time. Good hands, sharp cuts and fearlessness seemed to make him a strong candidate for the third receiver role.
When Joshua Morgan went down with a broken leg in October, the Niners moved Ted Ginn Jr. into that role. Ginn has had some good receptions, but he also has dropped some throws. He’s a very good return man; his hands, however, are not the best. We saw in the Cardinals game that Williams does have the hands and has the moves to get free for key catches.
The catch against Cardinal cornerback Patrick Peterson on the 4th-and-2 play in the third quarter finally let the 49ers motor get into higher rpm. He followed it up a few plays later with his second TD of the season, an eight-yard catch at the goal line.
Now in his second year, his five catches for 54 yards are career highs and may earn him the right for more playing time.
Forcing five turnovers, holding Arizona to 11 first downs and having the bittersweet satisfaction in knowing that the lone TD came on a deflection, it all adds up to a good effort. And not that it was any secret, Larry Fitzgerald (11) was the focus of the defense. He had four catches for 41 yards and a TD, but he didn’t do any damage until the fourth quarter.
The defense’s superiority enabled the 49ers to have a near 3-to-1 advantage in time of possession, and yet I don’t think anyone would call it their best effort. Andre Roberts’ 45-yard catch and run in the third quarter was the result of a blown coverage.
There were a couple of unnecessary penalties; Patrick Willis’ hit on Richard Bartel in the fourth quarter extended the Cardinals' final drive, and Dashon Goldson was ejected (and will undoubtedly be fined) after throwing retaliatory punches at Early Doucet.
John Skelton would, no doubt, like to take the stat sheet from this game and burn it. A 6-for-19 game with three interceptions and a 10.5 QB rating will do that. His stats were atrocious, no doubt in part due to the decisions he made.
The long pass over the middle to Larry Fitzgerald that was overthrown into the arms of 49er safety Donte Whitner cemented the obvious: Skelton was in over his head.
Many fans can blame the quarterback. It might be better to credit the SF defense. Skelton looked cool and confident last week in the Cardinals’ win over the Eagles. This week, spastic was a better term.
And for all the discredit that Alex Smith has had to take in the previous six years in San Francisco, he never looked that bad. His 20-of-38 game was less than stellar. That he missed Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree in the first half on what looked like easy throws proved that he was off. The throws were high, and perhaps that was due to the slick field. Unsteady footing and throw off mechanics.
The 49ers gained 435 yards in offense and a season-high 25 first downs. They ran an ungodly 87 plays, about 30 more than their season average. Those are stats that suggest this should have been a 42-3 game. But there was Arizona, driving, with five minutes left in the game within two scores of tying it up.
Nonetheless, the defense again carried the game while the offense and special teams sputtered. Now we know what a limited offense looks like. It’s called Skelton in Arizona.
The best thing about this game, aside from the win, was the fact that, by early accounts, the 49ers didn’t suffer any big injuries. Now they face a short week and a cross-country plane flight to face the 7-3 Ravens in the “Har-Bowl.”
The best thing is they don’t have to worry about coming off a desultory loss. They also get to play in the last of the three-game holiday fare, with the 10-0 Packers traveling to play the 7-3 Lions in another compelling game.
Nonetheless, we learned that even in the easy games, the ones where it should be over early and decisively, the 49ers cannot help themselves in leaving some questions on the table, such as:
Is Smith ultimately capable?
Is Frank Gore getting overused?
What took the offense so long to get going?
Are they 9-1 because of their plus-17 turnover differential?
The answers will come, but due to the relatively weak remaining schedule, perhaps we may not know the answers until Dec. 17 against the Steelers or, most likely, sometime in January.