49ers report card

The 49ers would like to see it last a little longer at this point, but they ended their 2006 season with one of their strongest performances of the year against the Denver Broncos, and San Francisco's grades for a 26-23 overtime victory reflect a tremendous effort that leaves both the Niners and their fans longing for more.

PASSING OFFENSE: B -- Similar to the Seahawks game on Dec. 14, Alex Smith came out misfiring at the beginning and the offense stumbled during the first half, when the second-year QB completed just six of 14 passes for 60 yards, was sacked four times, had a 25.9 passer rating and had an interception returned 70 yards for a touchdown by Champ Bailey, though the pick was not Smith's fault since he hit Frank Gore in the numbers with the pass. But Smith heated up in the second half, and he made some plays when the 49ers needed them most, including a clutch 14-yard strike to Bryan Gilmore on a third-and-8 from the Broncos 39 late in overtime that set up the winning score. Smith ended up being sacked five times as his protection faltered more than usual, but he hung in there and did not lose his composure. He finished 17 of 32 for 194 yards through the air, including a 32-yard touchdown pass to fullback Moran Norris, who made a nice run after the catch on a play that caught the Denver defense off guard. Despite a pedestrian 69.0 rating for the afternoon, it was a strong finish to the season for Smith, who came through with the game on the line. With four receptions for 56 yards, Arnaz Battle continues to display that he's a solid NFL receiver, even when he's getting more attention now with no other legitimate wideout threat around him.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A -- It was a record day for Gore, who once again was outstanding and just got stronger as the game wore on, which resulted in him wearing down a Denver defense that had seen enough of Gore already - and probably too much of him - by the fourth quarter. The line again had a strong game opening holes in front of Gore, even though the Niners rotated some players along that unit. Gore had a career-high 31 carries to pick up 153 yards, and that helped the 49ers control the clock by nearly a five-minute margin. Gilmore also gained 20 yards on a double reverse on the final drive to help the 49ers get into position for the winning field goal. Even Norris, who had not carried this season, got into the act with a 4-yard gain on third-and-1 to keep an eventual touchdown drive alive. Norris had another 4-yard gain later in the game and gave an indication he may be able to help the team in the future with more than just his blocking, which again was superb.

PASS DEFENSE: A -- There was a late lapse in coverage that allowed the Broncos to drive 80 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at the end of regulation. But this area otherwise was superb - despite another sporadic pass rush - and it might have been one of San Francisco's best games of the season here. Cornerback Walt Harris completed the best season of his career with another tremendous effort, recorded two interceptions, four passes defenses, recovering a fumble and returning his second pick 28 yards for a touchdown. Harris was terrific in coverage, locking up with Broncos' deep receiving threat Javon Walker and making him a virtual non-factor in the game (five catches for just 25 yards). Shawntae Spencer had a sack, forced a fumble and also had his moments in coverage. Denver quarterbacks completed 21 of 34 passes for 230 yards, but those numbers added up to less than the sum of their parts. His sack was nullified by a penalty, but Anthony Adams' big hit on Jay Cutler forced the rookie starter to the sideline for most of the second quarter, and the 49ers' comeback from a 13-0 deficit began while Jake Plummer was taking Cutler's place at quarterback.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- The 49ers' run defense was exceptional on three occasions when the Broncos had first-and-goal situations from the 1, 3 and 4. Linebacker Brandon Moore made a huge hit on Broncos running back Mike Bell on a first-and-goal from the 1, a play that seemed to energize the defense. Moore finished with 10 tackles and had another outstanding all-around effort. Mike Bell and Tatum Bell combined for 114 yards on 23 carries, but San Francisco made the stops when it needed to make them. Without Mike Bell's 46-yard run, the Broncos had just 69 yards on 26 carries. Denver had only 25 yards on 10 carries after halftime.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- Joe Nedney made field goals from 46, 29, 46 and 36 yards, the latter of which supplied the 49ers with the winning points in overtime. Nedney also had touchbacks on three of his kickoffs after having just two touchbacks in his previous 15 games. Andy Lee averaged 43.9 yards on seven punts, and he pinned the Broncos inside the 20-yard line four times while finishing the season with a 44.8 average - the highest by a San Francisco punter in the last 41 seasons. Maurice Hicks gave the 49ers good field position with a 25.3-yard average on six kickoff returns. Brandon Williams again didn't do much on punt returns, but his best return - a 12-yarder - set up the 49ers for their game-winning drive. The coverage teams lowered the final grade here by allowing Quincy Morgan to average 32.5 yards on four kickoff returns, including a 46-yarder, and a 25.0-yard average on two punt returns, including a 34-yarder, to Darrent Williams, who died tragically in a drive-by shooting in the early-morning hours after the game.

COACHING: A-plus -- You've got to hand it to Mike Nolan and his staff. The Broncos were a heavy 10-point favorite in a game they had to win to make the playoffs, and Denver was at home where it usually play well and had both the elements and more than 75,000 fans in its favor. But Nolan and his subordinates preached to their team that this was an important game, and the 49ers responded with a fantastic effort. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner called yet another good game that wore down a good defense and kept it guessing at the end. A double reverse in overtime netted 20 yards and set up the 49ers for the winning field goal. Defensively, the decision to have Harris shadow Walker worked out well, and the 49ers once again got a solid team effort.

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