If the 2013 season were a horse race, the 49ers would be the colt making its late move on the front runners down the final straightaway.
Its jockey Colin Kaepernick has pulled the whip out in full force after biding his time in the middle of the pack for most of the jaunt.
A few bumps from the other racers - from horses named Saint and Panther - caused some missteps in the last turn, but the savvy thoroughbred with its wealth of big-race experience is off the rail. Finally, it's in a full sprint down the stretch.
The finish line is ahead. But there are some big striders with great bloodlines leading the way Kaepernick still has to prove he can overcome.
On the football field in Tampa Bay, the quarterback made the plays necessary to beat a hungry and weathered Buccaneers team that had nothing to lose. The defense came in with with the most takeaways in the NFL but came up empty. Kaepernick's legs and arm made a number of "Wow" plays that highlighted his best performance since the opening week of the season.
It didn't come easy, and it was a game the 49ers could have choked away. But some strong play aided by a little late help gave San Francisco its 10th win of the season and tightened a grip on a third-straight playoff appearance.
Up just six points in the third quarter, San Francisco's offense lulled while the defense couldn't match Mike Glennon's up-tempo attack for two drives, allowing scores to Vincent Jackson and Tim Wright through the air.
Coming off their stirring victory over the Seahawks, the 49ers didn't come out flat against an inferior opponent. Just the opposite.
The second-year starter was able to do something that hindered the offense so often earlier in the season: find freelancing receivers after the initial play had been sniffed out by the defense.
On a few occasions, including Michael Crabtree's first quarter touchdown reception, the play broke down and Kaepernick scrambled to his right to improvise. Earlier Kaepernick would have been forced to throw the ball away. But with Crabtree back in action working the boundaries, he was able to break away from coverage and make himself available to his quarterback in small spaces.
Crabtree finished with five receptions on six targets for 45 yards and became just the third 49er to catch a touchdown pass this year. Vernon Davis (who had his 12th Sunday) and Anquan Boldin (five) are the others.
With a sidearm sling like a shortstop in the deep in the hole, Kaepernick would hit Crabtree as if the wideout's 12-week absence never happened.
He finished with 19 completions on 29 throws for 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But perhaps more importantly, he didn't turn the ball over to one of the league's most opportunistic defense.
His first half was one of his best all year, completing 11 of 13 throws for a pair of scores and 153.7 passer rating. His legs were also a factor, running for 39 yards on seven carries, converting key third downs when Tampa's talented secondary had his targets bottled up.
San Francisco put together one of its most balanced offensive attacks of the season passing for a net of 189 yards while running for 187. The 49ers had 11 first via the run and 11 via the pass. They out-gained the Buccaneers 376 to 183.
"Kaepernick really put on his cape. A couple of those conversions ... there's not a lot of people that can make those kind of plays that he was making with his feet, his arm and with his head," Jim Harbaugh said. "Who's able to do that that's playing in this league? Very few guys."
A Historic Day
With his 86 yards on 22 carries, Frank Gore eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the seventh time in his career. He's just the 20th running back in NFL history to do so. He now has 1,017 yard on the year after netting 86 rushing yards on 22 carries. He's gotten more carries just twice this season (25 in Week 6 vs. Arizona and 24 Week 7 at Tennessee).
"It's all timing for us, perfect timing," Gore told reporters. "Everybody is getting healthy, and like I said, the fourth quarter, that's when you want to be good."
But Gore's name wasn't the only one to make the record books. With his 52-yard touchdown bomb in the second quarter, Vernon Davis became the first tight end in league history to have two seasons of at least 12 TD receptions. Davis beat safety Mark Barron deep down the middle and caught Kaepernick's long throw to make it 17-0 with 1:56 to play in the half.
Davis has two games to match his career-high of of 13 he set it 2009. With 805 yards on 49 receptions for the season, he's averaging 16.4 yards per catch which would be the best mark of his career. He has caught touchdown passes in five-straight games for the first time in his career.
The 49ers will play the last regular-season game at Candlestick Park next Monday night and it could be the last game played ever played at the historic venue. They currently have the No. 6 seed in the playoffs and could clinch a berth with a win over the 4-10 Atlanta Falcons or a Cardinals loss in Seattle next week.
On the injury front, Bruce Miller (shoulder) and Crabtree (hand) will both undergo further tests Monday. Crabtree went for x-rays on his left hand following the game but indicated to reporters he did not believe the injury was serious. Miller was reported to be in serious pain after taking a big hit to his left shoulder. The team is hoping it is just a stinger. Anthony Dixon replaced Miller late in the game at fullback.
Rookie tight end Vance McDonald was inactive for the first time all season while dealing with his injured ankle...Left guard Mike Iupati missed his fifth straight game and his replacement Adam Snyder struggled against one of the league's best interior linemen Gerald McCoy, who finished with a sack and two tackles for loss...Tarell Brown returned to action for the first time since suffering his rib injury Nov. 17 in New Orleans and was beat by Vincent Jackson for Tampa Bay's first score late in the second quarter.
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