|49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has tried to keep Frank Gore fresh for the playoffs. (US Presswire)|
It's been a roller coaster of a three-week stretch for the San Francisco 49ers. They looked like the Super Bowl champions in wait in the first half of their 41-34 win against New England before an injury to Justin Smith and a nearly historic second-half collapse followed. Things got worse the following week when they were man-handled on Sunday Night Football against Seattle in a loss which seemingly cost the team a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs and postponed the NFC West title.
After Sunday, the last six quarters were rendered irrelevant. The 49ers beat Arizona to lock up the NFC West title and Minnesota beat Green Bay to vault San Francisco back into the No. 2 seed -- the same spot the team was in a year ago, when it landed a home game in the NFC championship game.
After a slow start, San Francisco finally found its groove and piled up 407 yards of total offense -- 278 yards through the air, the most since Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as the team's starting QB. WR Michael Crabtree had a career-high 172 yards receiving on eight catches and scored a pair of touchdowns. The running game wasn't quite as effective. Frank Gore had 20 carries for just 68 yards and the team averaged just 3.5 yards a carry on the ground. Rookie RB LaMichael James ran for 49 yards on seven carries and had a long of 26. Previous game's grade: D
A week after surrendering 42 points to Seattle, the defense returned to form. If not for a late touchdown by WR Michael Floyd, San Francisco would have held the Cardinals without a touchdown in both games this year. The Cardinals ran for just 55 yards on 17 carries and QB Brian Hoyer, making his first career start, threw for 225 yards. San Francisco forced a pair of turnovers -- one touchdown, one interception – which means it still hasn't gone a game this year where it won the turnover battle and lost. Previous game's grade: F
Special teams: C
K David Akers missed on 44- and 40-yard field goal to start the game, which seemed to have an impact on coach Jim Harbaugh's decision-making later in the game. The 49ers went for it on fourth down on a pair of occasions in situations where Akers would have usually been sent on to kick. “We'll evaluate the position,” Harbaugh said. “It's his job to make the field goals. And not to his standard.” Unlike on misses earlier in the season, Akers' first two were not well struck kicks, which brings up legitimate concerns about his confidence. After hitting a 43-yard field goal later in the game, Akers hung his head. Previous game's grade: C-
The team locked up the No. 2 seed and accomplished one of its primary goals: winning the NFC West. Other than the team's slow start, there wasn't a whole lot of reason to find fault. The staff now has a bye week to work with in order to prepare for its first playoff game on Jan. 12. Previous game's grade: D