By Jerrell Richardson
While this was an important game for both teams, it was Arizona that had to win their regular season finale and not San Francisco. The Cardinals were clearly the more desperate team on the field Sunday, and it showed. After falling behind early, the home team fought back to tie the game late in the fourth quarter,only to watch the 49ers take back the lead and control of the game, escaping with a 23-20 road win. While the Cardinals proved that they will be a team to be reckoned with next year, the 49ers sent a message of their own that this year, they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Offense Grade: C+
The 49ers scored 17 points in the first quarter, but the offense wasn’t exactly clicking as they were the beneficiary of short fields, set up by the special teams and defense. After the first quarter the offense was missing in action, and failed to put any more points on the board until late in the contest. The fact remains though that they were up against an elite defense, and twice when the 49ers needed a scoring drive, with some help from the special teams, the offense delivered.
The 49ers knew that running the ball against the Cardinal front was going to be almost impossible and this proved to be true. Frank Gore was handed the ball 13 times and rushed for only 14 yards, while his backfield mate Kendall Hunter was held to 13 yards for the game. As a team, San Francisco compiled just 83 yards on the ground and 37 of those came from wide receivers who along with Colin Kaepernick and the passing game were just enough offensively.
In the air though Kaepernick passed for over 300 yards for just the second time this season. He completed 21 of his 34 attempts for 306 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Anquan Boldin was the focus early, finishing with 145 yards, but everyone got involved, including Joe Staley who was one of seven 49ers to catch a pass. The catch of the game though was by rookie Quinton Patton whose fourth quarter, 29-yard catch set up the final score and 49er victory.
Defense Grade: B
As has been the case all year, the 49ers defense was a victim of an opponent putting up points and yards in desperation mode. After shutting down the Cardinals for three quarters, Arizona woke up and struck for 13 fourth quarter points, many times going for it on fourth down. Carson Palmer led his team’s comeback, passing for 407 yards and a touchdown, however, he dropped back 49 times, and he threw an early pick that set up a 49ers score. While Palmer had a big statistical day, it was due to the Cardinals using a one-dimensional offense which played into the hands of the San Francisco defense.
The Cardinals had just as many problems as the 49ers running the ball as they had the exact amount of rushing yards as San Francisco. NaVorro Bowman had his second interception in as many games, added a fumble recovery, a sack and his 10 tackles were a big reason the Cardinals offense struggled to run the ball. Rookie Eric Reid continues his rookie of the year bid, matching Bowman’s 10 tackles and Patrick Willis chipped in six.
Special Teams Grade: B+
The special teams had a minor hiccup, then recovered to play a major role in the win. Andy Lee was solid all afternoon, averaging 43 yards per punt and pinning the Cardinals multiple times close to their own goal line.
LaMichael James continues to get more comfortable in the return game, proving to be a major upgrade from Kyle Williams. James had 45 punt return yards to help set up short fields, while his 41-yard kick return was key to San Francisco’s game-winning field goal.
The biggest surprise of the day was Phil Dawson missing a chip shot, 24-yard field goal in the first half, snapping his streak of 27 makes in a row. Dawson bounced back, hitting a career long 57-yarder before the game-winning 40-yarder.
While the 49ers were already in the playoffs, the win ensured them the fifth seed, which puts them in a more favorable position to avoid going to Seattle in the playoffs. What this game also did was prove how complete the San Francisco roster has become. All year the running game has picked up the slack as the passing game has struggled, but the tables have turned. This is a game that earlier in the season the 49ers would have lost, but now are more than capable of competing in and winning. With an offense that can now hurt opponents with their ability to run or pass, any team playing San Francisco is facing a battle. There is no question the 49ers are playing their best football of the season – at the right time. There is no team that wants to play San Francisco, no matter the venue.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.