It wasn’t always pretty, but for the first time since the 1994 and 1995 seasons, the 49ers have won back-t0-back NFC West titles. When I say it wasn’t pretty, I’m not specifically talking about the game, although it certainly wasn’t at times. More on that after the jump.
This season as a whole hasn’t always been pretty; it certainly wasn’t as pleasant as last year. The 49ers suffered some pretty forgettable hiccups; that is to say, when they lost, they lost ugly. There was nothing of redeeming quality to take from their losses to Minnesota, New York or Seattle. Nor was there much to like about the tie and loss to the Rams, which ended up rather meaningless after giving fans a little cause for concern late in the regular season.
Two of the 49ers’ strengths in 2011 — special teams and turnover ratio — weren’t in tip-top shape either. David Akers has been more than troubling while Ted Ginn looks as lost fielding punts as he does catching passes. The +9 turnover ratio isn’t as earth shattering as +28 clip they enjoyed last year.
Furthermore, while they did considerably well skirting the injury bug in 2011, they weren’t so lucky in their second season with Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers’ suddenly high-powered passing attack has and will sorely miss Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham, and while LaMichael James has been a bright spot for an otherwise quiet draft class, the running game is lacking without Kendall Hunter. Then there’s Justin Smith’s arm injury, which may or may not keep him out for the playoffs. Aldon Smith went sack-less without the Cowboy by his side, and the 49ers’ defense continues to look wanting without him.
It’s not all fire and brimstone though. San Francisco delivered its fans several statement wins this season, including victorious trips to Green Bay, New Orleans and Foxboro. While the quarterback switch may have added a little off-the-field sloppiness, Colin Kaepernick has looked better in assuming the starting role than most of us probably thought he would when the season opened.
Ultimately, the 49ers didn’t go backwards this season like many experts predicted that they would. Instead, the NFC West got considerably better, and the 49ers came out as the cream of the crop.
Now on to the finale
The 49ers have looked sleepy to open several games this season, and all of those sleepy starts resulted in losses. The 49ers found a way to turn it on against the Cardinals however, and by the third quarter it was all San Francisco. The first quarter field position battle belonged to the Cardinals and was buoyed primarily by Ted Ginn, who let a punt sail over his head at the 20-yard line, ultimately getting downed at the one. Arizona struck first with two Jay Feely field goals in the first and second quarter, but Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree found a rhythm late in the first half, connecting on two pass, one for 31 yards and the second for a 49-yard score.
The game turned out to be Crabtree’s career-best, finishing the contest with eight catches for 172 yards and two scores. Emerging as Kaepernick’s favorite target, Crabtree finished the 2012 regular season with 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns, making him the first 1,000 yard wide receiver since Terrell Owens in 2003. When asked about what the 1,000 yard milestone meant to him, Crabtree patted Kaepernick on the shoulder and said, “My dude made it happen. I’m just going out there, running routes, catching the ball, trying to make a play.” Next, he was asked if he could be a Pro Bowler in a full season with Kaepernick, to which he responded, “I think I can be a Pro Bowler. Yeah, I think I can.”
— Kaepernick set a new career high as well today, going 16-of-28 for 276 yards and two touchdowns.
— Crabtree and his quarterback weren’t the only guys to reach milestones today: Frank Gore scored his 51st career rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter, passing Joe Perry and Roger Craig for the franchise’s all-time record. After he scored it, Gore appeared to throw the ball into the stands and then he ran over to high five the fans. A classy move from a player who will always be held affectionately by this San Francisco fan base.
— AJ Jenkins saw his first target today, a short out with room to run on third down. The ball clanked off of his hands and the 49ers were forced to punt as a result. Later in the game, Jenkins was out of position when the 49ers came to the line and Kaepernick had to motion him into the right spot. Kaepernick again had to alter Jenkins’s position when he accidentally set up on the line of scrimmage. With Manningham and Williams both out for the postseason, Jenkins’s lack of progress will put a large onus on Randy Moss to be a factor in the playoffs.
— Alex Smith came into the game late in the fourth quarter with seven pass attempts needed to qualify for the passer rating title. Unfortunately, Smith handed off the ball twice and completed one pass — a check down to Bruce Miller — before coming off the field for the punting team. Smith was welcomed by a raucous standing ovation from the Candlestick crowd, and the stadium chanted his name as he took to the sidelines.
— Aldon Smith finished his season with 19.5 sacks, unable to gain any ground on Michael Strahan’s single-season record. The 49ers did get some pressure on Brian Hoyer with back-to-back sacks from Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks, but Smith’s penetration continued to lack without Justin Smith by his side.
— Are the 49ers ready to make a move at kicker yet? Akers’s first two attempts of 44 and 40 yards both sailed wide left, and he was met by some serious boos from the Candlestick crowd. He did make his next two tries (for 43 and 26 yards, respectively) as well as three extra points, but the 49ers went for it twice on fourth down to forgo long field goal attempts.
— With the Minnesota Vikings’ victory over the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers officially locked up the second seed in the NFC and a first round bye. They will enjoy home field advantage against any team except for the Falcons, and their divisional round opponent will depend on the winners of next week’s wild card weekend. Regardless of their opponent, the bye should help to get the 49ers’ key players healthy and ready for more playoff football at The ‘Stick.