NinersDigest's Craig Massei and AZRedReport's Brad Wilbricht go Behind Enemy Lines to take an inside…
49ers vs. Cards: Thumbs up and thumbs down
Thumbs up: Colin Kaepernick threw for a career-high 276 yards in his seventh NFL start, and most of it went to Michael Crabtree, who led the 49ers with eight catches for a career-high 172 yards receiving. Kaepernick targeted Crabtree on 13 of his 28 passes – no other San Francisco player was targeted more than four times.
Thumbs up: Crabtree had his second two-touchdown game against the Cardinals this season, and his 49-yarder was a big-play strike that put the 49ers on the scoreboard for the first time while his 7-yarder in the left corner exhibited his tremendous hands to reel in a tough pass. Crabtree finished the season with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards receiving to become the first 49er to record 1,000 or more yards receiving since Terrell Owens in 2003.
Thumbs up: It was quite a scene in the winning locker room after the game, with the 49ers watching the end of the Packers/Vikings game on video monitors, then the whole room rocking with exhilarating celebration after Minnesota kicked the winning field goal on the game's final play to push the Niners ahead of the Packers for the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed and the bye week that goes with it.
Thumbs up: And that marks back-to-back NFC West championships for the 49ers, who haven't done that since way back in the heyday of the team's dynasty, doing the title repeat for the first time since San Francisco won back-to-back-to-back-to-back NFC West titles in 1992-1995.
Thumbs down: Wide open on third down with nothing between him and first-down yardage – and more – rookie A.J. Jenkins flat out dropped the first pass thrown his way this season after Kaepernick put a soft spiral right on his hands, forcing the 49ers to go three-and-out for the third consecutive time on offense to start the game.
Thumbs down: And that's why the 49ers had no first downs and were out-gained embarrassingly by the Cardinals 129-15 in the first quarter.
Thumbs up: But talk about turning things all the way around the rest of the way: After that sluggish start, the 49ers outgained the Cardinals 392-133 and outscored them 27-10.
Thumbs down: After that ignominious early drop, Jenkins played sparingly and never was targeted again the rest of the afternoon, and San Francisco's first-round draft pick finished his rookie season with zero receptions.
Thumbs up: More Crabtree: The mercurial receiver had big-play catches of 49, 31, and 28 yards, but his 19-yard reception on third-and-long in the second quarter may have been his prettiest as Crabs extended his body toward the sideline and brought in a high throw with one hand, his right arm stretching high in the sky. Also a nice play by Crabtree on a catch he didn't make: Crabtree alertly located a tipped pass in the air and immediately played defensive back to knock the ball away as it was coming down in the hands of a defender on what could have been a killer interception deep in San Francisco territory early in the game.
Thumbs down: Ted Ginn Jr., continuing to do his best to flub punt returns, stands at the 20-yard line and lets a punt bearing down on him go over his head and bounce at the 19, then roll all the way to the 1-yard line before it is downed by the Cardinals, forcing the 49ers to work out of their end zone on their first offensive drive. Three runs into the line later, the 49ers were punting the ball to Arizona and giving the Cards excellent starting field position to take early control of the game.
Thumbs up: But give it up for Ginn finding an opening and gliding along open turf for a 28-yard punt return in the third quarter – by far Ginn's biggest contribution to the 49ers in more than a month. San Francisco scored its second touchdown five plays later.
Thumbs up: On his longest – and so far best – run of his rookie season, LaMichael James dazzled as he swept right, waited patiently for space to open, then danced, jitterbugged and weaved to make four defenders miss before he bowled over safety Kerry Rhodes at the end of a 26-yard run in the second quarter that took the 49ers into Arizona territory for the first time.
Thumbs up: It was another solid performance by veteran Ricky Jean Francois in his second start at right defensive tackle in place of All-Pro Justin Smith. Jean Francois led the 49ers with six tackles, had a ringing sack in the third quarter, then gave his own thumbs up to Smith's burning desire to return from a torn triceps for the playoffs. "All I have to say to that is ‘Saddle up,' " Jean Francois said. "He's coming. He's got his horse. He got a thoroughbred, and he's coming."
Thumbs down: The Cardinals, who rank 32nd and dead last in the NFL in rushing yards, were opening big holes in San Francisco's defense during the first half, with William Powell ripping off some healthy gains while finishing the first half with 50 yards rushing.
Thumbs up: Yet another example why Patrick Willis is the best: With the Cardinals attempting a reverse to wide receiver Andre Roberts in the first quarter, Willis came flying in from middle linebacker to Chase Roberts all the way to the sideline, where he ended up getting pushed out of bounds by Willis after a 2-yard loss. The 49ers' All-Pro defensive leader also led a second-half charge that limited Powell – and the Cardinals – to two yards rushing on two carries over the entire final two quarters.
Thumbs down: No sacks again for Aldon Smith, who missed a great opportunity to finish as the 2012 NFL sack champion – not to mention break the league record for sacks – by going sackless in each of San Francisco's final three games after having at least one sack in each of the team's previous seven games to get to a team-record 19½.
Thumbs up: Yet another weekly commendation for Frank Gore doing the dirty work between the tackles, working hard for 68 tough yards rushing – 48 of which came after halftime – and barreling into the end zone for the touchdown that put the game away early in the fourth quarter. That was the 51st rushing TD of Gore's career, leaving him all alone with the new franchise record that he had shared with Roger Craig and Joe Perry at 50 entering the game.
Thumbs down: What's worse than the extremely-struggling David Akers pushing a 44-yard field-goal attempt to the left with the 49ers trailing 6-0 early in the second quarter? How about Akers missing the same way on a 40-yard attempt with 24 seconds remaining before halftime, keeping the 49ers from extending a shaky 7-6 lead at the intermission.
Thumbs down: Delanie Walker can get open and make big plays, but San Francisco's No. 2 tight end once again dropped a potential touchdown pass in the end zone after Kaepernick hit him right on the hands with a deep throw from 29 yards out on San Francisco's first drive after halftime. The 49ers ended up settling for a 43-yard field goal that Akers didn't miss.
Thumbs up: The San Francisco defense did a lot of bending early in the game, but the Niners didn't break when the Cards drove into the red zone twice in the early going. Arizona had to settle for field goals on both trips, and the Cards never again reached San Francisco territory until their final offensive series of the game.
Thumbs down: Niners nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is one big and athletic Samoan, but he lost the battle of the soaring Samoans when Sopoaga had a prime opportunity for his first career interception in the second quarter. With a tipped pass falling into his hands, Sopoaga allowed Cardinals guard Senio Kelemete to go high over him and take away the ball for a reception that Kelemete turned into a 10-yard reception and first down for the Cardinals.
Thumbs up: For an example of why Alex Boone went from being a reserve offensive tackle to a productive starting guard who was honored as a Pro Bowl alternate this season, all you had to do was watch Boone on a draw play in the second quarter when he pulled to the left and was still pancaking an Arizona lineman 10 yards down the field while James was scooting behind him for a 12-yard gain.
Thumbs up: From fans who booed him during much of his eight seasons in San Francisco, it was gratifying to see Alex Smith getting a standing ovation from a sellout crowd when he entered the game for San Francisco's final two offensive series, Smith's first action since suffering a concussion on Nov. 11. "It was very humbling," Smith said. "It was very surreal. To go out there and get that kind of response was very cool. We've been through a lot, the fans and me. It made it almost that much sweeter. We've come a long way."
Thumbs down: Alas, it seemed somewhat bittersweet to see Smith getting basically mop-up plays instead of the seven pass attempts he needed coming into the game to qualify for a possible NFL passing title. Smith completed his only pass for six yards, but that actually dropped his final passer rating. And on what very well could be his final two plays in a San Francisco uniform, Smith knelt to the ground for a 1-yard loss after taking each snap.
Thumbs up: But this is no time to be looking back. It's all about what's ahead now for the Niners after a day and regular-season finale that couldn't have finished much better or been much finer.
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