Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"We let 'em off the hook!"

Had we been asked to compose an ideal opening script for the 49ers' championship showdown against the Seahawks at Seattle Sunday last, it might have gone something like this:

49ers win the toss;
They elect to defer;
They immediately force a Seattle turnover;
They score the game's first points; and, simultaneously:
Take the crowd out of the game;
Set the tone for the rest of the afternoon; and
Plant a seed of doubt into a confident opponent.

Barely a minute into the game, Aldon Smith indeed took the ball away from Russell Wilson deep in Seattle territory after cornering the scrambling quarterback.  Three plays later Phil Dawson kicked a field goal for a 3-0 lead, and while a touchdown would have been preferable, there was little to fret about in a game that was likely to feature a few field goals and perhaps be decided by one.

It was all downhill from there.

Believe it, people: the 49ers had this game in hand, and they gave it away. Sure, we can complain about the officiating all we want, but the truth is the 49ers turned it over three times in the fourth quarter, in a game that ultimately was decided on one play. This wasn't the last Super Bowl, where the Niners came back against all odds and fell just short in the attempt. This one got away, or was taken away, by a team that was just a little bit better when they had to be. Yes, you can lose the turnover battle and still win a conference championship (witness "The Catch"),  but you only get to do that about once every 33 years. This time, the mistakes were enough to cost a good team the Super Bowl, and to send another good team there instead.

The Seahawks didn't do anything the 49ers didn't expect them to do. Their entire offense was three big plays. Wilson's second-quarter bomb to Doug Baldwin, which set up a field goal, was their only first-half play of note. Then there was that damnable fourth-and-8 touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse which finally swung the game their way early in the fourth quarter. The rest of the time they kept hitting the line with Marshawn Lynch, which early on didn't work, but in the second half did,  especially his one big run for their first TD.  Defensively, Seattle concentrated on stopping Frank Gore, and they were successful. They trusted their secondary to make as many big plays as they gave up, and they did. And they were unable to contain Colin Kaepernick when he ran for 130 yards-- but they gambled it wouldn't cost them the game, and they were right-- just barely right, but right.

That the 49ers controlled the tempo, the pace, and the score throughout the first half, but couldn't finish the job in the second half, is a reality we're now forced to live with throughout the offseason. All year they'd been the best second-half team in football, and they had the lead and the ball to open that second half-- and, though it's taken us until today to grudgingly admit it, it was Seattle who came out and controlled that second half.  The game was a dogfight for the final two quarters, but as it wore on we saw the Seattle specialty-- their uncanny knack for making the other team self-destruct-- start to emerge. That it came down to a frantic last-minute drive, similar to that of the Green Bay game; that we had every confidence "Kap" and the boys would pull it off despite needing a touchdown instead of a field goal this time; that only a spectacular end-zone play by Richard Sherman (and we'll refrain form making any further comments about his post-game tirade; our opinions are already scattered across the 'Net like vile confetti) ended that comeback bid-- all this speaks volumes about the depth of character and courage exhibited by our favorite football team, and it's just too bad that we'll have to wait until next season to see the same spirit demonstrated again. All this week we're worn our colors with pride; Jim Harbaugh's team played their heart out in a third consecutive road game against a strong, determined opponent, and came up one play short.  Nobody need apologize.

It's time to send our best wishes and prayers for speedy recovery to the great Navorro Bowman, who ought to be voted the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Likewise to studly Michael Iupati, who recovered from one serious injury this year only to suffer another Sunday. And we couldn't, and wouldn't, have come this far without the spectacular play of Anquan Boldin, whom we hope will wear the scarlet and gold at least one more season.

Bright moments: "Kap" long-striding past the grasping Seattle secondary on his 58-yard second-quarter gallop; Smith's continuous,  unrelenting pressure on Wilson, who looks like nobody if not the new Fran Tarkenton ("I always hated Tarkenton," grumbled the normally mild-mannered Merlin Olsen years ago, and we could see the same frustration in Aldon's  late-game demeanor); Anthony Dixon's leap over the line into the end zone on fourth-and-goal, the Niners' high-water mark; Boldin's career-defining touchdown catch amid tight coverage, our only score in the second half; the 49er defense surviving three brutal turnovers by allowing only 6 points instead of 21;  the much-hyped Seattle "Twelfth Man" being a total non-factor in the game; Patrick Willis' respectful shoulder-slap of Wilson as the clock wound the final seconds down-- an almost-unseen gesture of sportsmanship on a most chippy afternoon; Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll's cordial, almost affectionate midfield postgame meeting.

In the Get It Right Next Time Dept., we hear the Competition Committee will likely change the absurd rule that fumble recoveries are not reviewable. How seven men could miss Bowman holding the football in plain sight is a mystery, but in any case justice was served when Lynch promptly coughed it up on the next play (and several teammates helped by kicking it back out to the 49er 15). And when was the last time "roughing the kicker" was called, anyway? It was fairly common once upon a time; now apparently it's fallen into such disuse that the officials can't recognize it when they see it. Use it or lose it, fellas; we can't say the non-call decided the game, but we can't say it didn't, either.

Super Bowl XLVIII will feature pro football's Ultimate Good Guy, Peyton Manning, for the third time, as he seeks to become the only quarterback ever to lead two teams to a Super Bowl victory. We're with him-- or, more precisely, we're with his team. This game comes down to the Number One offense against  the Number One defense, and as we've said before, when that happens the outcome will likely be decided on the other side of the ball-- that is, when Denver's defense meets Seattle's offense. Based on what we saw Sunday, we believe Manning-- with a lot of help from his D-- will hoist his second Lombardi trophy ten days hence, capping a record season with a record victory.   

And for those of you who've yet to get over it...  the Giants' training camp opens in less than a month.

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