The San Francisco 49ers are once again NFC West Champs, earning a much-deserved spot in the approaching postseason. And they have the hats and shirts to prove it.
More importantly, they have a 10-2 record as the deciding evidence.
It’s been almost 10 years since the 49ers were in the playoffs. For fans and those within the organization, it has felt closer to 29,837,463 years.
Sunday’s victory has officially ended the dry spell and commenced the celebration.
Let's take a closer look at what stood out in the 49ers playoff-clinching win.
Alex Smith was lined up in the shotgun formation. He took the snap, faked the handoff to Hunter, then faked the option toss to Gore and took it himself for an eight-yard gain.
It was the old Smith—the one that put the University of Utah football program on the map with a 22-1 record and BCS-busting victory over Pittsburgh.
That play Sunday was so much more than just an eight-yard run. It was a statement: Smith and the 49ers are for real.
During the offseason, Smith was at a crossroads in his career. His contract was up and all signs pointed away from San Francisco. The easy decision was to leave and start somewhere new.
But easy didn’t appeal to Smith; he wanted to take the high road and prove his worth to the organization that selected him with the No. 1 overall pick.
Smith took the road less traveled and it has made all the difference.
The hiring of QB guru, Jim Harbaugh, also played a pivotal role in his decision.
William Shakespeare said it best when he described Harbaugh working with Smith as “star-crossed.” OK, maybe he was talking about another relationship, but this one has been just as fateful.
Harbaugh has taken the title of coach and turned it into an active verb.
Since day one, he has been working closely with Smith. It’s been a hands-on approach and the results are palpable. Smith is poised in the pocket, confident and playing at a very high level.
Harbaugh is indeed the quarterback whisperer.
But don’t hesitate to give Smith credit; he is the one out there making the throws, including deep balls. Smith connected with Crabtree for a 52-yard gain and Williams for 56 yards—both touchdowns.
On perhaps his best throw of the night, intended target Vernon Davis was unable to haul in the perfectly placed long ball that would have, and should have, been another touchdown.
Just like the good ol’ days, Smith is having fun. He’s smiling more this year than he has his first six seasons as a pro.
He’s enjoying a career year and his team just won the NFC West.
Say it with me...
We’ve all heard about the San Francisco defense not giving up a rushing touchdown in 12 consecutive games. We’ve also read about running backs’ inability to reach 100 yards against this brick wall 49ers defense.
Both amazing streaks remain intact after Sunday’s game and, much like Twinkies, appear to have no expiration date.
Entering Sunday, the team carried another impressive streak; in seven previous games, they hadn't given up a first-half touchdown. Against St. Louis, they took it even further, shutting out the Rams the entire game.
Zero touchdowns. Zero field goals. According to my calculator, that equals zero points.
What's more, they did it without perhaps their best player on defense.
Star linebacker Patrick Willis went down in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. The entire Bay Area held its collective breath as the medical staff attended to him on the field.
Willis would not return to the game, but the injury does not appear too serious.
The 49ers of recent years would have folded like a cheap pop-up tent. Not this team. Not this year. They rallied around each other and continued their dominant ways.
With the inspired play on defense, this game was won as soon as Akers connected on his first field goal.
It's a bird, it's a plane! No, wait, it's just Aldon Smith flying into the backfield for one of his team-leading 9.5 sacks.
This guy makes other gridiron beasts look like cuddly kittens playing with a ball of yarn, or golden Labrador puppies in wicker baskets.
You get the point.
It's as if Smith always has a V.I.P. pass to the opposing team's backfield.
Just a 22-year-old rookie, Smith is playing like a seasoned veteran. And if he keeps it up, Rookie of the Year honors will be heading his direction.
The more playing time he gets, the more plays he makes.
Case in point: this past Sunday.
Smith saw extended playing time and responded with three tackles—two for sacks—and a fumble recovery. His best play of the day was, perhaps, his non-celebration after yet another sack.
While others would no doubt do some ridiculous celebratory dance, Smith ran straight to the sideline and took a seat.
He was acting like he's been there before. Because he has, several times.
And you can count on his return; those V.I.P. passes are all-access.
As for the 49ers offense, what was missing has been here all along, waiting for his chance on the sideline.
Well, that chance arrived and Kyle Williams is taking full advantage of it. An injury to Braylon Edwards opened the door slightly for the second-year receiver out of Arizona State to get more reps.
His performance Sunday busted the door wide open and he sprinted through, much like he did on his way to a 56 yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Williams electrified every time his number was called, whether it was through the air, or on the ground.
He's shown good hands while running crisp routes. Most importantly, he is able to pick up copious amounts of yards after the catch.
Just what the offense needed.
It's time to give these two more playing time; they sure have earned it.
Almost all things went well Sunday afternoon at Candlestick.
The 49ers clinched a playoff berth.
They shutout the opposing team.
But not everything was perfect; the red zone struggles continued.
This has absolutely nothing to do with the defense who played lights-out. In fact, they didn't even let the visiting Rams enter the red zone, let alone sniff it.
This is all about San Francisco's benign offense.
For much of the game, the 49ers offense was able to move the ball with relative ease, but failed to deliver in the red zone. On four separate occasions, they were forced to settle for field goals.
It's been the recurring theme of this offense, which ranks 31st in red zone scoring percentage (38.10 percent).
The play calling was once again too conservative and predictable, although creative and unexpected at other times.
It was almost as if Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were calling the plays from the booth. The playbook was opened up, revealing new pages and chapters.
There were runs by receivers, tight ends and even a wildcat formation. There were deep balls and option plays. But all of that disappeared once inside the red zone.
On one possession, they ran three straight running plays, resulting in another appearance from Akers. The kicker should be making cameos, not be the star of the show.
Where was the play-action? Where are the rollouts utilizing Alex Smith's athleticism? Where are the touchdowns?
A lot of points were, once again, left on the table.