Thursday, January 31, 2013

Road to the Super Bowl - San Francisco 49ers (13-4-1, NFC West and NFC Champions)

The end of the 2011 season left a bitter taste in the mouths of the San Francisco 49ers. After a seven win turnaround from 2010, the 49ers were just a few fumble miscues away from reaching their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history. Instead, they had to watch the team they lost to, the flukey New York Giants take home the Super Bowl trophy. The pundits expected a regression, figuring the 49ers just got lucky, instead of realizing that they were good because of coach Jim Harbaugh. They ignored the fact that the defense returned all eleven starters, and that the offense had added weapons. The question was, how would the 49ers deal with a tougher schedule and being the hunted, instead of the hunter in 2011.

The 49ers made quite the statement in Week 1, when they went to Lambeau Field and steamrolled the Green Bay Packers, 30-22. The game was not as close as the final score indicated, as the Niners led 23-7, and 30-15 at different points of the game. RB Frank Gore ran wild, WR Randy Moss made an instant impact with a touchdown catch, and QB Alex Smith outplayed defending league MVP Aaron Rodgers. Their Week 2 win over the Detroit Lions in their home opener wasn't as impressive but it was a game that San Francisco controlled from start to finish. The offense followed the same formula as the Green Bay game, with Gore churning yards rushing, and Smith efficiently leading the offense. The defense continued its strong play, especially their rush defense. Week 3 proved to be a rude awakening for San Francisco, as they were flattened by the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome, 24-13. Smith played badly, averaging just 5 yards per completion, the Niners turned the ball over three times, and when trailing early they abandoned Frank Gore and the running game. The defense also struggled, letting Christian Ponder throw for 2 touchdowns.  A trademark of the Harbaugh era 49ers has been their ability to respond after a loss, and the New York Jets learned that the hard way in Week 4. The 49ers blasted the Jets, 34-0 and also unleashed QB Colin Kaepernick on the NFL. The defense held the Jets to just 145 total yards and forced four turnovers. On offense Kaepernick rushed for his first NFL touchdown. The 49ers were 3-1 at the quarter mark of the season, in first place in the NFC West.

The 49ers were even more impressive in Week 5 at home against Buffalo, defeating the Bills 45-3. The offense had an astounding 621 yards and Smith had his greatest game as a pro, throwing for 303 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Niners were feeling real good about themselves going into their Week 6 game at home against the Giants. They were building it up as a revenge game, but instead it proved to be the most embarrassing loss in the Jim Harbaugh era, as the Giants won 26-3. Smith threw three interceptions, and Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw carved up the 49ers defense. The 49ers had to quickly erase the game from their minds as they hosted the upstart Seattle Seahawks on Thursday Night Football. The offense again struggled, but the defense returned to form, although the 49ers caught a few breaks due to many dropped passes by Seattle receivers. The 49ers ultimately came out on top 13-6, to improve to 5-2 and atop the NFC West. San Francisco was once again in prime time the following week, at Arizona on Monday Night Football. Smith would complete 18 of his 19 passes along with 3 touchdowns, including one to Moss, as the Niners rolled 24-3. Michael Crabtree began to make his presence felt as he had 5 catches for 72 yards and 2 touchdowns. Going into their bye week and at the halfway point of the season, the Niners were sitting pretty at 6-2.

Coming off their bye week the Niners figured that the St. Louis Rams would provide an easy win. Instead, San Francisco trailed 14-0 early, and then later lost Smith to a concussion. Kaepernick came in and was able to help the Niners tie the game at 24 and send it into overtime. This game marked the beginning of the end of David Akers as reliable kicker, as he missed a 41 yard field goal that could have won the game in overtime. The Rams blew multiple opportunities to win the game, and it ended in a kissing your sister tie. The 49ers were back in primetime in Week 11 on Monday Night football against the Chicago Bears. It appeared that Smith would play in the game but on Monday it was decided that Kaepernick would get the start. Kap took advantage of his opportunity and put the rest of the league on notice with a brilliant performance. He was 16 of 23 for 2 touchdowns in his first career start as the Niners destroyed Chicago, 32-7. TE Vernon Davis had a monster game, which would prove to be his last big game for a while. After Kap's performance myself and many other 49er fans were ready to hand the reigns of the team to him. Members of the media were far too scared to make such a drastic change, but Harbaugh wasn't and Kap was named the starter for the game in New Orleans. How would the young quarterback respond in such a tough environment? The answer was very well as he threw for 231 yards, a touchdown, and also rushed for a touchdown. The defense really turned the game around as LB Ahmad Brooks and CB Donte Whitner each returned interceptions for touchdowns. The 49ers were now 8-2-1 and had stumbled into a game changer at quarterback. But then they had to travel to St. Louis to take on the Rams and once again they were given a fight. For whatever reason this season, St. Louis had the 49ers number. Like the first game, this one would go into overtime, and also like the first game, Akers would miss a chance to win the game. Kap also made some bad mistakes that cost the 49ers the game. With four games left in the season, San Francisco was 8-3-1.

Against Miami the following week, Kap was played mediocre and the Alex Smith whispers started coming out. But then late in the game, with San Francisco winning 20-13, Kap ran the ball 50 yards for a score to seal the victory. In that one play, he showed the difference between him at quarterback and Smith. Kap faced his most difficult challenge of his young career in Week 15 at New England on Sunday Night Football. Once again as he had in the past, he responded wonderfully. The 49ers shocked the country by jumping out to a 31-3 lead. The offense was humming along as Moss continued to save his biggest plays for primetime, scoring a touchdown against his former team. The defense was harassing Tom Brady into mistakes and a win seemed assured. But then the Niners slipped into the terrible prevent defense and New England made a furious comeback to tie the game at 31 in the fourth quarter. The Patriots kicked off after tying the game, and rookie LaMichael James, just recently brought up to the active roster had a huge kickoff return. On the next play Kap would hit Crabtree for a 38 yard touchdown pass and the 49ers would go on to win 41-34. The 49ers were now 10-3-1 and could clinch the NFC West with a win at Seattle, again on Sunday Night Football. Seattle is probably the hardest stadium to play in when the Seahawks are good, and the 49ers, spent from the game against New England, were destroyed 42-13. The defense had no answer for Russell Wilson and it became apparent how much they missed Justin Smith, who had been injured in the win against New England. Despite the loss, the 49ers still controlled their destiny for the NFC West. They also had a chance at a first round bye, if the Vikings could beat the Packers. All the 49ers had to do was beat the hapless Cardinals at home. Early in the game though the offense was struggling, and Akers continued to miss field goals. Eventually, the 49ers woke up and put away the Cardinals, 27-13 to finish the season 11-4-1 and earn their second straight NFC West title. They also received even better news as the Packers lost to the Vikings, assuring the Niners a first round bye.

Despite his strong play, people still felt that Kap would fold under the pressure of the playoffs. With the Packers dispatching the Vikings in the Wild Card round, Green Bay was coming to San Francisco. The Packers had owned the 49ers in the playoffs in the history of these two teams, so 49er fans were understandably nervous. Those nerves ratcheted up even more when on the first drive Kap threw an awful pick six. But Kap, playing like a veteran, didn't let it bother him, and on the next drive converted a crucial third down and eventually ran it 20 yards for the tying score. The teams would go back and forth the first three quarters, each offense throwing haymakers, and the defenses trying to keep up. With the game tied at 24, Kap would take control and break past Packers defenders for a 56 yard touchdown run, giving the 49ers a 31-24 lead. Gore and Anthony Dixon would add touchdown runs and Niners ended up routing Green Bay 45-31. When all was said and done Kap had rushed for 181 yards, a record for a quarterback in any game ever played. He had also thrown for 263 yards and a touchdown. He instantly became a star throughout the league. Thing was, the 49ers still had another game to win and had to do it in the Georgia Dome against the number one seed, Atlanta Falcons. Things couldn't have gotten off to a worse start as the Falcons jumped ahead 17-0 early in the second quarter. WR Julio Jones was single handedly killing the 49ers, whose defense and corners had no answer for him. But Kap once again played like a veteran and the 49ers offense got to work of getting back into the game. Vernon Davis, who had disappeared from the offense for weeks, was running free and Kap was finding him. A 4 yard touchdown pass to Davis, got the Niners within three at 17-14. But then once again the defense couldn't stop Atlanta, and the Falcons went into halftime winning 24-14. A Frank Gore touchdown run once again brought the 49ers within three, and then the defense finally started making plays. Chris Culliver would pick off a Matt Ryan pass, but Akers and his awful kicking would rear its ugly head again, as he boinked a 38-yard attempt off the upright. Then after a Ryan fumble, the 49ers were driving again, but Crabtree fumbled the ball at Falcons 1-yard line. The defense kept making stops, and finally the Niners took the lead with a 9-yard Gore touchdown run. The Falcons had one last chance and got within the 49ers 10 yard line, but the defense made the stops necessary, and clinched a 28-24 victory. The 49ers were on their way to their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history and first since 1995. They will try to make it six for six in Super Bowls when they face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.


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