The 49ers couldn't have gotten off to a better start. But the rest of the game left a lot to be desired before San Francisco edged Arizona for the 23-20 win.
Scoring 17 points on their first three drives against the heralded Cardinals' defense made it look like the rest of the game would be put on cruise control. After all, the home team knew they would need a win from Tampa Bay on the road in New Orleans paired with a win to get them into the playoffs. As the game went, that idea faded.
The Saints ended up beating the Buccaneers 42-17. But that didn't stop the Cardinals from finding ways to get back into the game with their division rival.
San Francisco went eight possessions (36 plays) between scores. The team's first five drives of the second half all lasted five plays or less and didn't result in point going up on the board. The Cardinals had scoring chances on their final four drives, but two missed field goals (the first coming in the first quarter) cost them dearly in the three-point defeat.
The Cardinals entered the game with the league's No. 1 rush defense and held the 49ers to just 83 yards. Frank Gore had one of his worst performances of the year getting 14 yards on 13 carries. Take away Quinton Patton's 26-yard run and Anquan Boldin's 11-yarder on the offense's first drive, and the 49ers finished averaging just 2.19 yards per carry.
The game took on less meaning for San Francisco as the day went along as well. The Rams were never able to get off the ground in Seattle, losing 27-9 preventing the 49ers from a chance at their third-straight division title and first-round bye. The Panthers' win over Atlanta earlier in the day meant the best the 49ers could do Sunday was land the No. 2 seed. Alas.
In the end, Phil Dawson hit two key field late in the fourth quarter to give his new team its 12th win over the season. San Francisco reached the Super Bowl last year after going 11-4-1 in the regular season. But instead of sitting at home with a first-round bye, they have to go win a game in frigid Green Bay marking the fourth time they have matched up with the Packers since September of last year.
Anquan Boldin admitted after the game that he's San Francisco's No. 2 receiver, deferring to Michael Crabtree as the clear No. 1. The unselfish nod to his teammate is commendable, but it takes away from how good Boldin has been in his first year in San Francisco.
Boldin finished the 2013 regular season with 1,179 receiving yards after Crabtree finished 1,105 last year. A majority of Boldin's production came in 12 games while Crabtree was rehabbing his torn Achilles. But he was clearly Colin Kaepernick's No. 1 target Sunday, netting a game-high 149 yards on 9 receptions (11 targets).
The 11-year pro started his career in Arizona, notching 7,520 yards and 44 touchdowns before moving on to Baltimore. It was his first game back since leaving the team.
"For me it wasn't added motivation. I'm motivated by winning and that's it," Boldin said.
He helped Kaepernick throw for 310 yards, marking the second time all season he eclipsed the 300-yard mark. The first came in Week 1 against...the Green Bay Packers.
"He was tuned in. He knew it was a situation where we had to make plays. He came to us on the sideline and let us know 'I'm coming. Make a play for me,'" Boldin said of his quarterback. "He made some clutch throws down the stretch."
The last time the 49ers played the Packers, Boldin didn't have a bad game himself. He set his season-high in the season's first week with 208 yards on 13 receptions against Green Bay's banged up secondary.
"He wants to be great," NaVorro Bowman said. "He understands that when a big play needs to be made and he's just out there making them...He's a great asset to this team and leader."
Struggles in the Running Game
The 49ers came into the game hoping to take advantage of the Cardinals keying on the run. On their first three scoring drives, Frank Gore received just two touches for six yards.
And after getting out to the 17-point lead, Arizona's ability to plug the ground game prevented the 49ers from pulling away and killing the clock.
"We had some 3rd-and-inches, 4th-and-inches, 3rd-and-1s that we weren't converting on and stopping those drives," Jim Harbaugh said. "The short-yardage plays stopped three or four good drives."
A week after failing to convert on some pivotal 3rd-and-shorts against the Falcons by going to the pass, offensive coordinator Greg Roman elected to go back to the run against Arizona. But the results simply weren't there with runs up the middle.
On 3rd-and-1 from the Cardinals' 45 in the second quarter, Gore was stuffed for a 5-yard loss forcing a three-and-out. On a similar situation in the third, Anthony Dixon got the call but was also tackled five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Harbaugh elected to potentially take three points off the board after Bowman forced a fumble in Cardinals' territory in the third quarter, going for it on 4th-and-1 from the 16. Anthony Dixon got the call and rammed into the line but came up inches short of the first down after a failed challenge by San Francisco.
Bottom line: the 49ers' biggest issue heading into the playoffs is their execution in third-and-short situations.
Patton's Clutch Catch
After Jay Feeley hit the game-tying 43-yard field goal with 29 seconds to go, it sure seemed like the game was headed to overtime.
But after LaMichael James returned the ensuing kickoff to the 36-yard line, the 49ers had a chance to end it in regulation.
Cue Patton, the rookie who was still looking for positive yardage in his first season as a pro.
After Kaepernick found Boldin on the right side for 18 yards and took a costly delay of game penalty, he looked for Patton deep down the right sideline for a 29-yard catch that easily could have been intercepted by corner Antoine Cason. Patton leaped and took the the ball away from Cason putting the his team in prime position for the game-winning field goal.
"Hey, come on, Jesus, put the ball in my hands," Patton told the Sacramento Bee following the game.
Prior to last Monday's win over the Falcons, Patton had been inactive since Sept. 26 when he suffered a fractured foot against the St. Louis Rams. With Mario Manningham going on injured reserve this week with his knee injury, Patton will be counted on heavily as the team's No. 3 wideout going forward into the postseason.
Patton's first down-field catch of his pro career came just moments after missing a pass on a key third-down that led to Dawson's 56-yard field goal to take the momentary 20-17 lead. Kaepernick tried to thread the needle to the rookie on 3rd-and-2 to extend the drive, eat clock and allow Dawson an easier kick. But Patton was covered tightly and the ball went through his hands. Luckily for him, he made up for it.
"That's huge for (Patton's) confidence," Boldin said after the game. "I went to him and told him ‘Keep your head up. We're going to need you. So continue to play.' Sure enough we came back to him and he made a big play."
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