There will be plenty of time this week to focus on the finer points — why the San Francisco 49ers were unable to take advantage of some goal line situations, as well as what seemed like a reasonable number of opportunities to move the ball downfield through the air.
What mattered today was the Niners defeated the Cleveland Browns, the game was never really in doubt, and now they have a 4-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks and a 5-game lead on both the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals.
It sounds ridiculous because NFL playoff seedings usually have more to do with tiebreakers than magic numbers, but the 49ers’ magic number to win the NFC West is 6. I know the following is elementary, but forgive me while I try to wrap my head around it … if Seattle wins out, they’ll finish 11-5. The Niners are 6-1, and if they finish their last nine games with a 6-3 record, they’re guaranteed to win the division. They’d also have a pretty solid shot at a first round bye, too, seeing as New Orleans’ record sunk to 5-3 and the New York Giants barely beat Miami today at home.
What’s more amazing, that we’re realistically talking about the 49ers finishing 12-4 or that they might clinch the NFC West by Week 12?
Ground game differential
The 49ers won because they ran the ball (39 carries for 174 yards and a TD — 4.5 ypc) and the Browns didn’t have a prayer of doing the same (23 carries for 66 yards — 2.9 ypc). The Niners’ great turnover differential this season was padded a little with a fumble recovery by Isaac Sopoaga and an interception by Goldson, but it was the run differential that led to the Niners’ sixth win of 2011.
Check out this quote from Aldon Smith when he was on the CSN Bay Area postgame show: “We just knew we had to stop the run, whether it was Peyton or whether it was the other guy in.” “The other guy” was Montario Hardesty, until “the other guy” became Chris Ogbonnaya after Hardesty left with a calf injury. It didn’t matter, and it wouldn’t have mattered if The Great White Madden Cover was in, either.
The Niners’ defense is capable of accumulating big plays and hard hits, but the most consistent thing they do well is tackle running backs near the line of scrimmage. They forced fumbles aplenty on Sunday, but recovered only one of the five footballs the Browns left on the ground. They gave up a pretty awful long TD pass to Joshua Cribbs, since Tarell Brown let Cribbs get open, missed the tackle and Dashon Goldson both took a terrible route on the play and (even worse) stopped running when Brown made his faulty tackle attempt on Cribbs.
However, their now formidable defense got some sacks when they needed to (Aldon made an appearance, but Ahmad Brooks was the star with 2 sacks even though he couldn’t keep his helmet on), and the Browns’ one-dimensional offense wasn’t going to cut it since that dimension only had Ben Watson and Cribbs at its disposal.
Frank Gore didn’t power it through at the goal line even though he came close several times (and probably made it on 4th and goal, to be honest), but he did what the Niners wanted him to: let them control the clock and tire out the Browns’ defense. The 49ers’ offensive line is rapidly becoming one of their best such units since the days of Bobb McKittrick, by the way. Plenty of holes for Gore, and Alex Smith was sacked only once and probably should have done more with the time he received in the pocket.
One of the storylines many will seize on was a couple linemen catching 1st down passes: Joe Staley in the first half and Isaac Sopoaga with an 18-yard reception on 3rd-and-3 late in the 4th quarter that cemented the win. But this isn’t a sign that the Niners are going to be a team that utilizes 280-lb+ receivers more than any other team in the league from now on.
The Browns came in extremely shorthanded. No Peyton Hillis or Mohamed Massaquoi, and their offense was no great shakes with those two in the lineup. Harbaugh and Greg Roman were fairly conservative today, taking a few shots downfield (mostly to Michael Crabtree; the Niners seemed intent on getting Crab his first TD today). But in terms of trickery, the farthest they were willing to go against a team as limited as Cleveland were a couple of gimmicky passes to linemen. Effective passes to linemen, sure. But probably not the 3rd down, 3-minutes-left type of passes that will be made later in the year against better teams.
Where was Delanie Walker today? Blocking for Gore, who moved to second all-time in franchise history in rushing yards (ahead of Roger Craig) with 134 yards on 31 carries. But in future games Walker may be the receiving star again, with Staley and Sopoaga limited to blocking (and tackling) duties. It isn’t great news for fantasy owners prospecting the 49ers, but for Harbaugh and Co., wins are the only treasure they need. And just in case you didn’t notice, they’ve already matched their win total from 2010.