The 49ers -- sporting fresh red NFC West champion caps after beating the Arizona Cardinals 27-13 on Sunday -- crammed into the cozy confines of their locker room and became Minnesota's fiercest cross-country cheering section. When Blair Walsh's 29-yard field goal sailed through the uprights for the Vikings as time expired to give San Francisco a playoff bye, the tiny dressing area in Candlestick Park's south corner erupted into a crazy, celebratory scene.
"C'mon, baby, bye week!" shouted defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois.
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The Vikings certainly deserved some thanks. So did Michael Crabtree.
Crabtree's career day and dazzling catch-making display sent San Francisco to a second straight division title and into the playoffs with some much-needed momentum.
Crabtree caught touchdown passes of 49 and 7 yards and finished with a career-high 172 yards on eight receptions, leading the 49ers to another rout of Arizona after a slow start.
Colin Kaepernick threw for a career-best 276 yards and two TDs as the Niners (11-4-1) did their part to control their postseason fate -- then waited all of about 15 minutes to watch Minnesota beat Green Bay and give San Francisco the NFC's No. 2 seed and a week off before hosting a divisional playoff game.
"It was a lot harder this time around to get it," said safety Donte Whitner, his new hat on backward. "We were the target this year and got everybody's best shot. To come out and still win our division and have the opportunity to get a first-round bye is tremendous."
Frank Gore ran for a 2-yard score early in the fourth quarter for his franchise-best 51st touchdown rushing, breaking a tie with mentor Roger Craig and late Hall of Famer Joe Perry.
With yet another new face under center, the Cardinals (5-11) lost for the 11th time in their last 12 games in what might have been Ken Whisenhunt's final game as coach. Brian Hoyer went 19 of 34 for 225 yards and a late TD toss in his first NFL start as Arizona's fourth quarterback this season.
He couldn't keep up with Crabtree and Kaepernick.
Crabtree's outstanding outing was the best by a 49ers receiver since Terrell Owens' 166-yard performance on Nov. 25, 2002, against Philadelphia.
"My dude made it happen," Crabtree said, looking at Kaepernick. "I'm really focused on these playoffs."
Crabtree caught a 31-yard pass to set up his team-leading eighth TD reception on the next play. The sequence put him over 1,000 yards, giving San Francisco its first 1,000-yard receiver since T.O. in 2003.
On the next series, Crabtree made a pretty, one-handed grab with his right hand along the left sideline on third-and-11 for a 19-yard gain and first down. He made a 14-yard catch on fourth down late in the third, and later converted another fourth down with a reception of 7 yards.
What a boost for an injury-depleted receiving corps missing Mario Manningham for the rest of the season because of a knee injury. Plus, tight end Vernon Davis was limited a week after sustaining a concussion.
Struggling San Francisco kicker David Akers missed wide left on a 44-yard field goal attempt midway through the second quarter, then did it again with nearly the same kick -- from 40 yards this time -- 24 seconds before halftime. Akers put his hands on his knees and closed his eyes in frustration as boos rained down from the sellout crowd at Candlestick Park.
He missed for the fourth time in his last eight spanning three games and 13th time in 40 tries after setting an NFL single-season record with 44 field goals in 52 attempts last year. Akers bounced back by nailing one from 43 yards early in the second half but was later clipped in his kicking foot by Arizona's Justin Bethel. Akers stayed in the game, then booted a 26-yard field goal with just more than 9 minutes remaining.
Coach Jim Harbaugh didn't rule out a change.
"We'll evaluate that," he said. "It's his job to make the kicks."
Hoyer exhibited poise in the early moments. He completed seven of his first 13 passes and three straight -- for 7, 15 and 12 yards -- during one drive as Arizona took a 3-0 lead on Jay Feely's 35-yard field goal late in the first quarter. Feely added a 31-yarder early in the second to make it 6-0.
The Cardinals outgained the 49ers 129-15 in the opening quarter and held San Francisco without a first down.
But that didn't last long.
The Cardinals ended a six-game stretch without a touchdown pass when Hoyer hit Michael Floyd on a late 37-yard score. Floyd had eight catches for 166 yards.
The Cardinals pounded the ball toward the right side of San Francisco's defensive line where Pro Bowler Justin Smith had been stout against the run all season before getting hurt two weeks ago. Now, San Francisco has an extra week for Smith to heal.
"Today's game kind of mirrored our season," Whisenhunt said. "I'm proud of the way our team's worked. You understand this is part of the business. We haven't won enough games this year."
Former starting quarterback Alex Smith made what could have been his final appearance in a 49ers uniform when he entered the game with 5:57 to go -- playing to chants of "Let's Go, Alex!" and "Alex! Alex!"
|49ers running back Frank Gore tosses the ball into the stands after scoring a touchdown. (US Presswire)|
|Sun. Dec. 30||Final|
|FG||Jay Feely makes a 35 yard kick. Drive: 7 plays, 37 yards in 2:27.|
|FG||Jay Feely makes a 31 yard kick. Drive: 10 plays, 74 yards in 5:11.|
|TD||Michael Crabtree catches a 49 yard pass from Colin Kaepernick (David Akers kick is good). Drive: 2 plays, 80 yards in 0:48.|
|FG||David Akers makes a 43 yard kick. Drive: 9 plays, 54 yards in 3:53.|
|TD||Michael Crabtree catches a 7 yard pass from Colin Kaepernick (David Akers kick is good). Drive: 5 plays, 38 yards in 2:51.|
|TD||Frank Gore runs for 2 yards (David Akers kick is good). Drive: 12 plays, 72 yards in 6:23.|
|FG||David Akers makes a 26 yard kick. Drive: 9 plays, 26 yards in 3:42.|
|TD||Michael Floyd catches a 37 yard pass from Brian Hoyer (Jay Feely kick is good). Drive: 6 plays, 78 yards in 1:39.|
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