It wasn’t a masterpiece. The 49ers needed five field goals and a fake punt to beat the Chiefs, 22-17. But with what this team has dealt with, both on the injury front and the trickle of gossipy stories about Jim Harbaugh’s future that became an avalanche over the last week or two, wins against quality teams like the Eagles and Chiefs in consecutive weeks look absolutely beautiful.
Especially if one contrasts what happened on a scorching hot Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium with the worst case scenario, which would’ve been Alex Smith leading the Chiefs to a last-second victory on a touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins. Instead, Smith was harassed into throwing an interception to Perrish Cox on his final chance to stick it to his former team. It was the first turnover of the game for either side — a remarkable occurrence since taking care of the ball is Smith’s specialty.
Smith started both halves on fire. He made two nice throws on third down, one to Anthony Fasano and another to Junior Hemingway, who chewed up the middle of the field in the first half. The Chiefs drove down the field with ease, ending the drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce.
The 49ers answered with a series that looked great early. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde combined for 27 yards on three carries, and Colin Kaepernick made a couple nice throws — one to Brandon Lloyd and another to Anquan Boldin. But the possession ended with a thud: a botched double-reverse to Boldin, who threw it well short of an open Michael Crabtree in the back of the end zone (to be fair, Boldin was running to his right, and a throw that was both short and on target would’ve been intercepted), and a hot read throw to Stevie Johnson where Kaepernick’s pass came *this* close to getting picked off by Ron Parker.
Defensively, the 49ers kept Smith and the Chiefs under wraps for the rest of the first half while picking away at the lead. They ended the second quarter with a 13-play, 93-yard drive that ended on a nine-yard touchdown toss to a wide open Johnson.
A three-and-out series was how the 49ers started the third quarter, and the Chiefs capitalized on good field position with a four-play, 58-yard drive that featured the only real bad stretch of tackling we’ve seen from the 49ers defense in a couple weeks.
From there, it was the Phil Dawson show. He made five field goals in the game, including a 55-yard kick in the second quarter and a 52-yarder in the third. The 49ers put together a pair of nice drives that ended in shorter field goals (27 and 30 yards) in the fourth quarter, but the game turned around on a special teams play of a different sort — when the snap went to Craig Dahl instead of Andy Lee, and the backup safety carried it up the middle for three yards. The 49ers saw that the Chiefs only had six men on the line, and the gutsy play gave them life. It also encouraged more risk-taking.
After a Bruce Ellington rush to the left and an incomplete pass made it 3rd-and-10, Kaepernick floated one down the left sideline for Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd, who had his best game as a 49er since Nov. 20, 2005, made like R.C. Owens and caught an alley-oop pass over 6′ 3″ cornerback Sean Smith.
“Oh my goodness, it was awesome. It was like the best catch I’ve ever seen,” Joe Staley said. “It seemed like he was up there for like four seconds. It was unbelievable. He just kept on going up in the air.”
That’s why the 49ers kept Lloyd around, I guess. The 49ers would later face a 4th-and-1 situation at the Chiefs’ 9-yard line, but elected to let Dawson do his thing. That gave them a 19-17 lead.
A crucial defensive stop occurred on the ensuing drive, as Ahmad Brooks batted down Smith’s pass on 3rd-and-1. The 49ers would move the ball just inside field goal range with a few runs, and the Chiefs were flagged for 12 men on the field as Dawson was set to attempt a 53-yarder. Harbaugh was pretty pleased with this development.
That allowed the 49ers to do what they did best during Smith’s days under Harbaugh, and probably what they still do best now: chew up clock with power run plays. Carlos Hyde rushed for three yards up the middle. Frank Gore went for eight yards off tackle. Hyde barreled up the middle for 11 more yards, and suddenly the Chiefs were out of timeouts and the clock was headed toward the two-minute warning.
With Dawson’s final field goal, Smith had a chance to pull off something he’s probably dreamed about — beat the coach who built him up, only to bench him after a concussion. Smith might have been a little too amped up — he was pressured into a dangerous incompletion to Jenkins, and then floated one of his deepest passes of the day to Fasano. It was too deep, as Cox had a game-sealing pick for the second straight week.
Dr. Gore, Mr. Hyde
Harbaugh didn’t talk like a butcher today, but the 49ers were at their best during the times when they decided to “grind the meat.” They have more capable receivers than before, but this is still a running team led by Gore (18 carries for 107 yards — his 37th 100-yard game) and backed up by a very hungry rookie.
“I think our wide zone plays were working really good today. I think we could’ve stuck with those plays and had success all day with those,” said Hyde. “I got the sense that me and Frank were just getting started.”
Harbaugh was pleased with Hyde’s running style today.
“Today once the game was over, (Harbaugh) told me, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. Way to get those pads north and south.’ Last week there were some times when I could’ve gotten north and south and I tried to bounce. That’s not my game. This week I tried to really lock in. ‘I’m going to just hit everything north and south and see what happens.’ It worked out in my favor today,” said Hyde.
“I think he’s just getting more confidence. He knows he can be more successful in this league. What he does a great job of is one-cut, physical running. He was able to do that today,” said Staley.
“That’s when we’re at our best, when we’re giving the running backs holes so they can make one cut and come downhill. That fits with what our running backs do best. He was able to do that. I’m happy for him.”
And what about Gore? He’s still one of the top running backs in the league, but how long can he keep going like this?
“15 (more years), probably. I always joke with him, he’s like the most competitive person I’ve ever met. For him to ever hang it up, he’d have to basically be carried off the field. He’s one of those guys,” Staley said.
Defensively, the 49ers looked awful in two drives — they just so happened to be the first two drives of each half. What happened, and how did they turn it around so quickly afterward? After a week where they seemed to know everything that the Eagles were going to do before the plays were even called, Andy Reid kept them off balance — during those two drives, anyway.
“They flipped their keys on us,” said Eric Reid, who was one of the defenders in the middle of the field who Harbaugh commended, along with Ian Williams, Patrick Willis, Michael Wilhoite and Antoine Bethea.
“They (have) a couple of plays out of the slot that we were expecting that they didn’t do. So just little stuff like that that we thought we were going to get that we didn’t … They changed those, but I think we adjusted well.”
It was ridiculously hot at Levi’s Stadium — about 90 degrees throughout the game. That doesn’t seem all that crazy to some, since football games are played in hot weather at several college and high school stadiums in Texas and in the south. But the poor fans in the east stands are getting broiled to the point where they probably look up to the sky and expect to see someone holding a magnifying glass the size of a blimp.
So that’s why you won’t hear any complaints from me about the fans not all staying in their seats. I was sitting in an air-conditioned press box with the sun behind us and out of sight. I wasn’t in the stands or on the field, where the players had it even worse.
“I think as the game went on, you could see that they were wearing down. I think a lot of us were kind of wearing down, but you’ve got to be stronger than them at times. You’ve got to know that Frank’s going to get those yards, Carlos is going to get those yards,” said Alex Boone, who seemed to have a heat flashback while mentioning the running backs.
His eyes got wide as he exclaimed: “I’ll tell you what, it’s a lot hotter than people think out there. It is ffff … hot!”
The southerners weren’t bothered as much.
“It’s been pretty hot the past two weeks. I made sure I was hydrated, ready to roll,” said Bruce Miller. “I like playing in the heat. I played in Florida for five years. I’d rather play in the heat than the cold. I like it. Keep you warm, keep your legs going.”
Reid wasn’t phased, either.
“It was hotter than normal. I’m from Louisiana, so it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for me.”
Odds and ends
— The 49ers won without either Davis. The offensive line wasn’t perfect, but this was definitely their best performance without Anthony.
“Today, from what I was gathering on the field, I thought today was a good day. I thought we did a good job of handling that front. They’re very talented. We saw what they did to New England the week before,” said Staley.
— First half time of possession: Chiefs 16:46, 49ers 13:14.
— Second half time of possession: Chiefs 7:10, 49ers 22:50
— Staley on the 49ers’ varied rushing attack: “Early on we were able to have some success outside. And then later in the game, third and fourth quarter, we ran downhill in the A-gaps. It’s big to have diversity in your running game and have everything working. Today was one of those days where we felt like if we called a running play, we were going to get at least five. It was a good day.”
— Hyde has gotten 10 carries in each of the last two games, and said it’s been a little bit of a struggle not to know how much work he’ll get on a game-to-game basis. But he’s gaining confidence.
“I feel like each game I’m just getting better and better, which is a good thing for me. I try to feed off of Frank, also. I see him out there having success, so I try to feed off of that when I get out there, I try to have the same success.”
— Dahl seemed a little annoyed that everyone was asking if he was excited/anxious/nervous when he heard he’d be carrying the ball on a fake punt. He was an option quarterback in high school, so apparently the play was second nature.
— Boldin had some really nice grabs in this game, and nearly came down with a late touchdown grab on a pass Kaepernick threw a little high (not the worst thing, because he made sure there was no chance the pass would be intercepted).
— Michael Crabtree had the quietest day of all the wideouts — one catch for 16 yards. He’s been dealing with a foot injury since last Sunday’s game, and that could’ve been the reason why Lloyd was more involved. Johnson only had one catch for nine yards. It was good for the 49ers’ only touchdown, but I expected to see him on the field more than the gameplan called for.
— Smith wasn’t sacked, as the 49ers’ pass rush continues to struggle. Aaron Lynch did have a few pressures, and batted down one of Smith’s passes. Brooks had the only QB hit, and it took place on a fantastic third down pass by Smith to fullback Anthony Sherman for a first down.
— The 49ers committed just two penalties for 10 yards.
— All the Harbaugh stuff (comments about Harbaugh by the players, and what Harbaugh said about his standing with the players) deserves its own post. Also, I’ve got to get going on the hourlong drive home. So I’ll leave with this … the 49ers are 3-2. Next up is a Monday night game in St. Louis, then a huge test in Denver, then their bye week. They won’t play again at home until Nov. 2, when I’m guessing it won’t be 90 degrees. I’d have to imagine their goal is to be at least 5-4 when Aldon Smith gets back. If they can win both games against the Rams and get a split on the road against the Broncos and Saints, they’ll be in an even better position to make a playoff run.