LEVI’S STADIUM — In a game where two quarterbacks stole the pre-game spotlight, it was one man’s leg who made the difference.
The showdown between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick wasn’t the gunslinging battle fans had hoped for, but the San Francisco 49ers (3-2) scrapped their way to a 22-17 victory against their former teammate and the Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) Sunday.
Kicker Phil Dawson connected on five-of-five field goal attempts for San Francisco, including two from over 50 yards, to give the 49ers the decisive edge.
Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay
With 16 years of experience in the league, Dawson had time to perfect his craft into a fine art. But with Santa Clara’s overbearing sun replacing the oppressive winds of Candlestick Park, Dawson opted for a different method:
“Sometimes when it is a lower percentage kick, it frees you up to go out there and let it rip.”
Unhindered by the elements or the pesky Levi’s Stadium turf, Dawson “let it rip” for 195 yards in field goals on the day, accounting for 15 of the 49ers 22 points.
But if assists could be handed out, you could credit RB Frank Gore, who chewed up the tough Kansas City defense for 107 yards, and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who lead all receivers with 76 yards, for setting up Dawson’s attempts.
Seemingly the low man on the totem pole coming out of training camp, Lloyd has emerged as a viable target in the 49ers offense over the last two weeks.
After a pair of highlight catches, including an athletic leaping catch over 6-f0ot-3 cornerback Sean Smith, Lloyd talked about his role in the emerging offense:
“I’m just playing within the offense and whatever plays come. Definitely feeling like I need to step up, and I think we all felt that way.”
For those still itching to debate over Smith and Kaepernick, it was the 49ers quarterback who came out on top Sunday, completing 14-of-26 passes for 201 yards compared to Smith’s 175 yards on 17-of-31 attempts.
Levi’s Stadium may have been unfamiliar territory to Smith, yet the former 49er looked comfortable marching his Chiefs downfield against many of his former teammates to open the game.
The 49ers couldn’t muster pressure against the calm and collected Smith, who showed his prowess in the pocket by completing 6-of-8 passes for 61 yards on his opening drive, ending the impressive display with a 2-yard touchdown pass to TE Travis Kelce for the early 7-0 lead.
Then it was out with the old, and in with the new-look 49ers offense, as Kaepernick looked to strike back against his former mentor.
Smith came out gunning for eight attempts to start the game, but Kaepernick was more subdued through the air, completing just 2-of-3 passes for 27 yards on his first drive.
The 49ers went ground-heavy for the second straight game in a row, rushing four times for 32 yards to move the 49ers into the red zone.
But Kaepernick — and interim quarterback Anquan Boldin who missed Michael Crabtree on a trick play — stalled short of the goal line, forcing a 31-yard field goal from Phil Dawson to open the 49ers scoring at 7-3.
Smith looked as poised on his second trip down field as his first, using a heavy dose of check down passes to move down field. RB Jamaal Charles began to find his rhythm out of the backfield as well.
After Kaepernick airmailed a pass to WR Brandon Lloyd down the sideline, he came back to the same play again to toss a 39-yard reception to Lloyd down the sideline.
The Chiefs defense stalled the drive, forcing Dawson to convert a season-long 55-yard field goal attempt to cut Kansas City’s lead to 10-6.
With an impressive balanced attack, the 49ers mounted a hefty 13-play, 93-yard drive capped with Kaepernick connecting with WR Stevie Johnson — uncontested in the corner of the end zone — for a 9-yard touchdown pass and a 13-10 lead.
The wheels threatened to fall off for the 49ers to open the third quarter.
Thomas would finish what he started, capping the scoring drive off with a 17-yard touchdown run down the sideline, including a tough stiff arm to the heavy-hitting Bethea to retake a 17-13 lead.
The 49ers responded with their most valuable offensive weapon of the day, Phil Dawson, who connected on his second 50-plus yard field goal of the day to keep the 49ers within one at 17-16.
The 49ers employed fourth-down trickery to extend a fourth-quarter drive, with S Craig Dahl receiving a direct snap on a fake punt before plowing ahead three yards for the first down.
49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, who doesn’t often use trick plays, talked about the decision to employ the fake punt:
“We practiced it all week. Brad checked to see if we could do it, I said “Go for it…” I thought it was an important call, important play in the game.”
The play wouldn’t make waves on the stat sheet, but it set up the winning score and allowed the 49ers to eat clock, preventing Kansas City from amassing a comeback.
Kaepernick would then connect with Lloyd for his second big reception of the day, a highlight reel catch over the coverage of CB Sean Smith, for 29 yards.
The reception would set up Dawson’s fourth attempt of the day, a chip shot from 27 yards out to regain the lead at 19-17.
Four consecutive stops by the 49ers defense gave Kaepernick and the 49ers offense a chance to extend their lead with yet another Dawson field goal after a nearly 5-minute drive for the final 22-17 lead.
Smith had one final shot to exact revenge, but instead, his pass sailed over tight end Anthony Fasano and into the arms of Perrish Cox for his third interception of the season to seal the win for the 49ers.
The 49ers win may finally end the nearly two-season long debate on whether the 49ers made the right call in handing Kaepernick the reigns of the offense.
After praising Smith earlier in the week, Kaepernick assessed his former mentor from a competitor’s standpoint:
“It was great, I mean going against that defense. But to have that head-to-head matchup, it was a great opportunity.”
The 49ers look to ride the momentum of their second straight win into a divisional matchup against the St. Louis Rams next Monday at 5:30 p.m.
Game Notes: Sunday’s victory marks the first time head coach Jim Harbaugh has defeated an AFC West opponent. Kaepernick’s touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson marked his 12th straight game with a TD pass, just three shy of Jeff Garcia’s 15-game record. Gore’s 107-yard outing is his second consecutive 100-plus yard outing. Various players voiced support of coach Jim Harbaugh amidst growing reports of unrest in the locker room, write up on SFBay.ca to follow.