Reading the keys: 49ers/Cardinals

How the 49ers fared in nine keys to the game identified before their 27-13 victory over Arizona on Sunday that gave San Francisco its second consecutive NFC West championship and a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.

Get back to Gore-ing on the ground
Frank Gore and San Francisco's fourth-ranked rushing game had a tough time getting going against Arizona's 28th-ranked rushing defense as the four-time Pro Bowl running back had just 20 yards rushing on nine carries in the first half. But the Niners kept going to Gore in the second half, and he kept banging away to help San Francisco gain control. Gore had 48 of his hard-earned 68 yards rushing in the second half, and his driving 2-yard run into the end zone clinched the win early in the fourth quarter and gave him the franchise's all-time career record with 51 rushing TDs. With rookie LaMichael James adding a career-high 49 yards rushing, the 49ers finished with 129 yards on the ground.

Make Brian Hoyer's first NFL start a forgettable experience
Hoyer started strong – throwing for 87 yards in the first quarter – and while the 49ers eventually got the better of him and shut down the Arizona offense in the second half, Hoyer probably won't be forgetting a respectable performance against the NFL's second-ranked defense. The 49ers did sack Hoyer twice and intercept him once, holding the Cards to just one first down over a stretch of six Arizona possessions while San Francisco was taking control of the game. But Hoyer stood strong and did not panic throughout the day, completing 19 of 34 passes for 225 yards, including a well-thrown 37-yard scoring strike to rookie Michael Floyd with 1:59 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Cards their only touchdown of the game.

Michael Crabtree vs. Patrick Peterson
Crabtree was spectacular throughout the day, and both of his touchdown receptions – from 49 and 7 yards out – came on plays during which he beat Peterson. Before Peterson left the game in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury, Crabtree looked like a Pro Bowler when matched up against a cornerback that's going to the Pro Bowl in just his second season. Crabtree finished with a team-high eight receptions for a career-high 172 yards receiving to become the first San Francisco player since Terrell Owens in 2003 to produce a 1,000-yard receiving season.

Get the mojo back on defense without Justin Smith
It certainly wasn't the case early, when San Francisco's defensive struggles extended to seven consecutive quarters of poor performance as the Cardinals punched the 49ers early and outgained them 129-15 in total yardage during the first quarter. But then, finally, the mojo returned, and the 49ers began to play like the NFL's second-ranked defense. The Cardinals went seven consecutive offensive possessions without getting past their own 41-yard line – Arizona produced just three first downs during that stretch – before the Cards drove 78 yards for a touchdown on their final possession. Their seven drives before that produced 40 net yards, and Arizona was limited to just 262 yards on the afternoon.

Contain Larry Fitzgerald and don't let him beat you with big plays
The 49ers turned the game-breaking wide receiver into a non-factor as Fitzgerald finished the game with paltry totals of two receptions for 15 yards. The 49ers did such a good job containing Arizona's leading wideout that Fitzgerald was targeted by Hoyer a total of just five times in the game. Three other Arizona players were targeted more times as the Niners made the Cards go away from their best player.

Get passing game back in sync and spread the ball around to multiple receivers
The Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree collaboration stole the show, but Kaepernick also completed passes to five other players on his way to throwing for a career-high 276 yards in his seventh NFL start against the NFL's third-ranked passing defense. Kaepernick threw passes to three different wide receivers, three tight ends and two running backs during the game.

Stuff the run and force Cardinals to beat you through the air
Arizona had some success running the ball in the first half, when William Powell found some openings and rushed for 50 yards. But the 49ers ultimately shut down the NFL's 32nd-ranked rushing attack, limiting the Cardinals to two total yards on the ground in the second half. On their only carries, LaRod Stephens-Howling and receiver Andre Roberts (on an end-around) both were stopped for losses.

No big returns by Patrick Peterson and LaRod Stephen-Howlings
The 49ers once again were outstanding covering kicks as the dangerous Peterson was limited to a 6.0-yard average on his two punt returns and the Cards had just a 5.7 average on their three total returns. Stephens-Howling also was contained on kickoffs, averaging just 21.8 yards on his five returns with a long return of 26. The Niners ranked 31st in the NFL in average yards allowed on kickoff returns entering the game but were more than solid in that area against the Cards.

Protect football and force weak Arizona offense into turnovers and mistakes
The 49ers did not commit a turnover and took the football away twice from an Arizona team that had committed 32 turnovers entering the game, the second-most in the NFC. Ray McDonald knocked the football away from Floyd with Donte Whitner recovering early in the fourth quarter and Tarell Brown made his second interception of the season six minutes later to thwart any Arizona hopes for a late comeback. The 2-0 edge Sunday allowed the Niners to finish the season with a plus-9 turnover differential.

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