The game finished as it started. When David Akers missed a field goal attempt on the 49ers’ opening drive and the Rams responded with a touchdown to take the early lead, “tired” Niners fans everywhere contemplated going back to bed. Then the 49ers left the Rams in the dust, or so it would appear. Even with a 21-point lead with less than 7 minutes to go in the game, the Rams put quite the scare into the 49ers, who still escaped with a 7-point win and the No. 2 seed.
First, a little perspective: this was not the 49ers team we should expect to see in the playoffs…
— They had two (two!) viable receivers, Michael Crabtree (who finished the regular season strong, with 42 receptions, 545 yards and 3 TD in his last seven games) and Vernon Davis (8 catches for 118 yards).
— Justin Smith should win NFL Defensive Player of the Year anyway. But based on how lost the best defense in the NFL looked without him after he left the game early on (Smith also had a sack today, running his total to 7.5), they should just hand him the award now. (Smith actually came back late in the game, even after aggravating a knee injury.)
— Frank Gore didn’t play at all after the second quarter either.
Here’s what’s a little disconcerting … the Rams were able to make it a game late due to the 49ers’ two main weaknesses:
1. Blitz protection, with Alex Smith getting sacked three more times and pressured numerous other times.
2. Every deep pass thrown against the 49ers makes you want to close your eyes, hold your breath and cross your fingers.
Luckily, the Niners have two weeks of time to shore up these two problem areas. Another bright spot: Patrick Willis looked rusty but didn’t re-injure his hamstring — as far as we know — so perhaps it was a smart move to activate him against the Rams. Guaranteed we’ll see a different Willis in two weeks.
NaVorro “should’ve been a Pro Bowl starter” Bowman looked like he was playing angry, and might have saved the game with a vicious sack that knocked Kellen Clemens out of the game. Yep, that was how shaky the 49ers were on Sunday — an injury to Clemens (who completed 14-of-31 passes) helped seal it.
When Tim Tebow “Tebows,” he’s actually thinking about Andy Lee
— Lee had yet another phenomenal day, punting 5 times with a net of 51.4 yards per punt. That seals Lee’s spot as the NFL’s leader in net average, as he started the day at 44.1, with the Saints’ Thomas Morstead right behind him at 44.0. Morstead naturally had one punt for 44 yards today with no return.
— My third-favorite moment of the game: Lee pinned the Rams inside the 10 on a kick to the right side, but the play was called back due to offsetting penalties. So Lee kicked it again to the right corner, only this time the ball was downed at the 1.
— Second-favorite moment: Bowman’s sack. With Willis less effective than usual and Aldon Smith double-teamed most plays, Bowman needed to make a play to hold the lead, and he did (an extra bonus: Tim Ryan’s almost tearful reaction to Clemens’ injury … sure it was too bad for Clemens, but pull it together buddy!).
— Favorite moment: this one was pretty obvious, the easiest fake-FG pass for a touchdown ever, from David “poor man’s Steve Young” Akers. If Justin Smith doesn’t have a season for the ages, Akers is your team MVP.
— It was Akers’ second completion of his career. The other was an 11-yard pass back in 2006.
— Kendall Hunter’s last two games: 28 carries, 149 yards.
— Bowman’s last two games: 2 sacks, 1 pass defensed, 16 solo and 5 assisted tackles.
— Tarell Brown doubled his interception total this season with two today (he also got screwed on that pass interference call in the end zone that should’ve been a no-call or offensive PI on Lloyd, the second straight week that’s happened to Brown).
— It pains me to say this, but after Aldon went sackless today (finishing with 14 sacks, 0.5 short of Jevon Kearse’s rookie record), it’s pretty doubtful he wins Defensive Rookie of the Year over Von Miller. However, with the Broncos looking like they just might choke away the AFC West (they’re down 7-3 to the Chiefs as I write this), Aldon definitely wouldn’t trade places.
— Jim Harbaugh looked less than happy on the sidelines, for obvious reasons. Probably won’t be too much in the way of drinking games or other assorted hijinks on the plane flight home.
— The Rams’ receivers are beyond horrible. Several drops helped the 49ers today, including one egregious first down drop during the Rams’ last possession by Brandon Lloyd, who’s prone to such mistakes when his team can least afford them.
— The Rams didn’t get the No. 1 overall pick, but with a better coach than Steve Spagnuolo and what should be a can’t-miss player at the No. 2 slot, they should be much stronger next year. Throw in the Cardinals and Seahawks — two squads with much stronger defenses than they usually feature — and the NFC West is going to be much more of a challenge in 2012.
— But next season doesn’t matter right now. The 49ers have an extra week for Bruce Miller (knee), Justin Smith (knee), Willis (hamstring), Kyle Williams (dome), Ted Ginn (ankle), Gore (everything from the waist down) and every other nicked up player to heal up and get ready. Miller’s knee is key, since Delanie Walker’s probably out the rest of the way with his jaw wired shut and Moran Norris is not a playoff-quality fullback.
— I can’t wait to see what Harbaugh and his staff does with this much time to prepare. While this game was way too nerve-wracking for a New Year’s morning tilt against the worst team in the NFL over the past several weeks (besides maybe the Buccaneers), the Rams did the entire team a favor by highlighting some problem areas and making sure overconfidence won’t be a problem when they host the Saints in a couple weeks.