CANDLESTICK PARK — It’s rare in sports when you can control your own destiny. The 49ers knew what was at stake: win and you’re NFC West Champions.
The first of many goals was accomplished as the 49ers scored 27 straight points to beat the lowly Arizona Cardinals 27-13. Colin Kaepernick had his best game a week after he and the 49ers were embarrassed in Seattle.
Kaepernick was 16-of-28 for a career high 276 yards passing with two touchdowns. Both of those were to Michael Crabtree who also had a career day with 182 receiving yards on eight catches. Kaepernick said:
Post-Game Audio: 49ers Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree
“It feels good. But I’m really focused on these playoffs. With how bad I did last year, in my opinion, I feel like I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. I feel like I get another chance. We’re back again and ready to win.”
Crabtree passed 1,000 yards receiving for the season, finishing with 1,105.
The 49ers started slowly, like an engine trying to warm up in cold weather: It takes some time, but once it gets going, it doesn’t stop.
The Cardinals got out to an early 6-0 lead on two Jay Feely chip shot field goals.
Fans got a little concerned when that six-point edge was still there midway through the second quarter. But Kaepernick changed that on two plays of the 49ers second drive in the period.
First, he found Crabtree with a slant pass up the middle for a 31-yard gain. Then it was another deep ball. This one coincidentally was 49 yards for a touchdown.
Kaepernick said better field position helped the 49ers open up their playbook:
“Well, it’s always tough when you’re starting off pushed up against your own end zone. You can’t open up the playbook like you want to, so once we got off our own end zone we were able to call some plays we thought we could take some shots with.”
The 49ers later added a David Akers 43-yard field goal, one of two on the day for the veteran. But Akers isn’t healthy. Something is wrong because his kicks are inaccurate and his foot strength is reduced. As he kicked the ball, it floated through the air like a infield pop up.
If Akers is to remain the kicker in the playoffs, he simply needs to do better than he has in the regular season.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said:
“I don’t know that we have to. We’ll evaluate the position. It’s his job to make the field goals. And not to his standard.”
Adding to the record afternoon, Frank Gore finally got into the show by scoring on a 2-yard scoring run. It was the 51st rushing touchdown of his career, putting him atop the franchise list for running backs.
The postgame locker room scene was highly entertaining. Players were handed out red caps commemorating their division title. But many weren’t really celebrating until the conclusion of the Packers-Vikings game. If Green Bay lost, the 49ers would become the No. 2 seed in the NFC giving them a first round bye.
Thanks to a long Adrian Peterson run, it helped set up the game winning field goal for the Vikings who beat the Packers, 37-34. The locker room exploded with an assortment of cheers as players, many of them only covered in towels after their postgame shower, gave each other hugs and hi-fives anticipating the start of the postseason.
49ers safety Donte Whitner told SFBay the playoffs are similar to levels in a video game:
Post-Game Audio: 49ers safety Donte Whitner
“It’s like a video game, but that game wasn’t easy out there. They never gave up. The defense came to play tremendously well. We made some big plays on them, got a turnover late in the third but we knew they were going to fight. That’s a prideful team over there. We fought all the way to the end and it feels good to leap forward with this (division) championship.”
A big test for the defense has been to maintain their presence without Justin Smith who has been the anchor. Though it was evident how much he was missed last week when the 49ers were blown out in Seattle, Whitner said the team needs to step up:
“They have to play close to his level or somewhere close to where Justin can play. He’s a tremendous player for us. He does a lot against the run, he frees things up for the pass rush. So we miss him. And he vows to be back for the playoffs.”
And after 16 weeks of football, Kaepernick said the 49ers are glad to get some rest and an extra week to prepare for their playoff game:
“I think the biggest thing is get healthy and keep working hard. We’re going to have a little time off. A little time to rest, and then get ready to get into the following week full speed.”
The 49ers will host the winner of the NFC Wild Card game on Saturday night January 12 at 5 pm.
Post-Game Audio: 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis
Harbaugh became the 8th head coach in NFL history to win division titles in each of his first two seasons. The last 49ers coach to have accomplished this rare feat was George Seifert in 1989-1990. Harbaugh is just the third coach to win two straight division titles after inheriting a team with a losing record. He also is third for most wins by a head coach in his first two seasons with 24. Coincidentally, the other two ahead of Harbaugh are 49ers coaches Seifert with 28 and Steve Mariucci with 25. … Crabtree is the first 49ers receiver to pass 1,000 receiving yards in a season since Terrell Owens had 1,102 yards in 2003. … Gore also holds the franchise record for running backs in rushing yards. (8,839), and carries (1,911).