Colin Kaepernick needed a game like this in the worst way.
San Francisco's quarterback has been under fire for his struggles in the team's four losses to playoff-caliber teams. It didn't matter if it came against Washington's abhorrent defense or Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" of the 70s. Kaepernick had to have a standout performance like Monday night's to avoid his team falling out of the playoff picture.
He has been a relative disappointment by way of exorbitant expectations. But Kaepernick's effort Monday night against a porous defense on a national stage might be the springboard he needs to get the 49ers back into title contention.
His line: 15/24 (efficient), 235 yards (just the third time he's gone for 200+ this season) with three touchdowns (of course, they went to Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, who have received all his touchdown tosses this year).
His quarterback rating was a career-best 134.5, edging out his first ever start coming against the Bears Nov. 11 last year in a game that was also on "Monday Night Football."
Whether he's been struggling to read defenses, handle pressure in the pocket, make progressions, or a muddled combination of the three, Kaepernick has been wildly ineffective in the team's four losses when he's averaged just 124 yards per game. Monday he made his throws deep down field confidently for the first time since before the team's bye three weeks ago.
His longest pass play in the 23-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints was 17 yards. He eclipsed that mark six times against Washington with completions of 24, 19, 40, 32, 20, and 23 yards. After finishing last season as one the league's most potent QBs on throws of 15 yards or longer, Kaepernick appeared to be back in his 2012 groove.
He got off to a rough start. The 49ers could only muster two first downs on his first two drives resulting in punts. But after finding Mario Manningham on intermediate routes early, he started to take chances and look for Boldin deep down the field. He hit his most trusted wideout on two-straight plays for 24 and 19 yards. The latter was the game's first touchdown and all San Francisco would need on the night. It opened up the field for explosive gains to Davis and even Vance McDonald.
One of his best plays of the season came in the third quarter on Boldin's second TD catch. He looked left, rolled right and found his free-lancing wideout with a throw back toward the middle of the field, right on the money to make it a 17-6 game. In a season that's been devoid of play making, Kaepernick and Boldin's unscripted connection was a sight for sore eyes.
No team in football ran the ball on a higher percentage of their plays than the 49ers coming in. But on Monday it was their passing game that carried the load for the offense. Just 76 of their 304 total yards game on the ground.
Defense Setting the Tone
The 49ers' linebackers stood out the entire night. Washington's offense featuring numerous bubble screens, inside runs and quick reads, was all thwarted by Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith.
All four linebackers reassured America that when they are all healthy and on their game, they are the best at their position in football as a group. And they did so without the help of the injured Ray McDonald on the defensive line.
Brooks continued his most productive string of play in his career, making two sacks and hitting Griffin either in the pocket or down field. He was playing with his hair on fire after last week's controversial call that could have swung the game against the Saints.
And for the first time sine Week 2, Smith looked like he was back to All-Pro form. Smith and Brooks gave tackles Trent Williams and Tyler Polumbus all they could handle while Griffin spent most of his night picking himself up off the grass.
Washington registered just 30 yards in the second half, the lowest output for any team in the second half this season.
Bowman and Willis combined for 20 tackles while Brooks had three for loss, a pass deflected and two quarterback hits. Smith hit Griffin four times along with his pair of sacks.
Smith's big hit on Griffin to end the first quarter led directly to Donte Whitner's interception that set up a field goal to make it 10-0. Washington would put together just two scoring drives on the night: both field goals in the second quarter.
The 49ers defense forced Washington's worst offensive output since since gaining 178 yards in a 23-0 defeat to the Buffalo Bills in 2011. Griffin finished with just 90 net yards passing after four sacks. As a whole the offense finished with 190 total yards.
Crabtree to Return, Says Harbaugh
After the game, Jim Harbaugh said he anticipates Michael Crabtree will make his return next week against the St. Louis Rams. Expect the team's No. 1 receiver to be added to the 53-man roster from the PUP list by Tuesday's deadline.
Despite Boldin's solid season, Crabtree's void has been felt in a big way for Kaepernick and the 49ers. Manningham had his best output since returning three weeks ago with four catches for 45 yards, but prior the team had been desperately searching for a No. 3 target to emerge to take the onus of Boldin and Davis. Coming into Monday, the 49ers had the league's worst passing attack that averaged 168 yards per game.
Crabtree was Kaepernick's favorite third-down target during last season's Super Bowl run and will give the team four proven and viable receiving threats to compliment an already sound rushing attack.
Should he come back and play next week against the Rams, that will give him five regular season games to prepare for the playoffs. Crabtree has been practicing with the team since Nov. 5.
The Cardinals' 40-11 win over the Colts gave them the No. 6 seed in the playoffs momentarily. But the 49ers reinserted themselves into that spot with Monday night's win (both teams are 7-4 but San Francisco owns the tiebreaker after beating Arizona in Week 6).
It doesn't appear either team will catch first-place Seattle (10-1) for the division title with just five games left. The Cardinals face the 6-5 Philadelphia Eagles on the road next week in a crucial game for their playoff chances. The 49ers will face the 5-6 Rams next week at Candlestick.
The 49ers had not issued a dominating performance like the one they had Monday in nearly a month after trouncing the Jaguars 42-10 Oct. 27 in London. Monday's performance in front of a national audience could go a long way toward the team reasserting itself as an elite team going forward.
If Smith and Crabtree can become the players they were a year ago for San Francisco, they would be as tough an out as any team in the postseason.
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