Monday, December 17, 2012

Best Game of the Year-- Ja, Sure!

Mighty fine, boys, mighty fine.

The general consensus seems to be that the league's two best teams duked it out last night, and the winner was something of a surprise. Things change from week to week in the NFL, but for now, anyway, we who back the scarlet and gold can claim to be Numbah One.

At least until the Seattle game next Sunday night. Yikes.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: when the "unstoppable force" (that would be New England's top-ranked offense) meets the "immovable object" (cue the Niners' league-stingiest defense)  you can bet the game will be won on the other side of the ball. That is, it was the job of the 49er offense, when the chips were down, to outperform the Patriots' defense. And they did. Just barely, but they did. We saw much the same thing happen in last year's semifinal playoff barnburner against New Orleans, which this game resembled.

San Francisco's defense won the first round, frustrating Tom Brady and forcing four turnovers in the first 35 minutes. There's your 31-3 lead. Then New England's offense, going to the hurry-up dink-and-dunk with typical ferocity, won the second round, to the tune of four scoring drives in one of the most amazing 15-minute intervals we've ever seen. There's your 31-31 tie.  And then it was two bang! bang! plays, LaMichael James' kickoff return and the Kap-to-Crab dagger-through-the-heart, coming at the most opportune time to save the day.

As Bill Walsh used to say, "A pass rush in the fourth quarter is the key to winning NFL football," and after twenty somnambulent minutes the 49er pass rushers, tired and weary as they were, drew new life from that last touchdown, even though they got almost no physical rest. To our eyes, the key was lining Aldon Smith up on the opposite side over those final five minutes; suddenly the white jerseys, even without Justin Smith, were winning the battle up front again, Brady, after a pressure-free second half, was hurrying his passes again, and just enough of them fell incomplete at the end there to seal a most shaky deal. But seal it they did.

Talk about a wacky stat line. The teams were virtually even in time-of-possession and average yards per play, but the Pats ran 92 (!) plays on the evening, the Niners only 65. Brady threw more incompletions (29) than Colin Kaepernick threw passes (25). Overall Kap was more efficient (8.1 to 6.5) and his lone interception had essentially the effect of a quick-kick punt, while both Brady miscues led to points.   New England was devastating in the red zone, especially considering they only got to the red zone once in the first 35 minutes; by contrast the 49ers' lone red-zone TD came when Frank Gore alertly picked up one of Kaepernick's four snap-fumbles and ran it in for the score; the play had the effect, if not the design, of an old-fashioned draw delay trap. Despite all that devastation, though, the 49ers held New England to only 2-of-15 on third down conversions, and they weren't all third-and-long by any means. Brady, however, did balance this out somewhat by converting 5 of 6 fourth downs, including yet another of his patented goal-line leaps.  It's worth noting, though, that the unconverted fourth down was a monster: it killed the Pats' attempt at an answer-back drive and led to David Akers' second field goal and a 41-31 lead with two minutes to play (and did anyone else notice the look of utter relief on Jim Harbaugh's face as that chip-shot kick sailed true?)

And what about those doggone fumbles? Glove, no glove, left hand, right hand, this hand, that hand... isolated incidents, Coach would have us believe. You can bet those pesky Seahawks took notice. And another "incident" we can do without is this continuing practice of doing the minute waltz or whatever it is when a punt comes bounding down the field. Fellas, just pretend the confounded thing is radioactive, and run away from it if you have to.

What is the deal with Seattle, anyway? The last time any team scored 50 or more points in successive games was in October of 1950, when the great old Los Angeles Rams of Bob Waterfield, Norm van Brocklin, Tom Fears, and "Crazylegs" Hirsch put up 70 and then 65 in back-to-back weeks. That team finished in a tie for the Western Conference title and had to win a playoff to get to the league championship game. You don't suppose...

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