For the first time since 2002 your San Francisco 49ers are NFC West champions and playoff bound. The sight of Frank Gore waving the 49ers flag after a 26-0 beat down of the Rams to celebrate winning the NFC West with Niner fans in the stadium will never get old. So many times since 2002 the 49ers walked off the field at Candlestick to boo’s after a loss, hanging their heads in defeat. Finally, after nine seasons, two head coaches, numerous offensive coordinators and quarterbacks, and season after season of disappointment, the 49ers are NFC West champs. How does it feel 49ers Faithful? It’s been a long time coming.
Niner fans are probably still getting used to that winning feeling, something we had not felt in a long while. The 49ers Faithful were spoiled in the 1980s and ‘90s and hardly ever felt the sting of a lousy team and a losing season. Many of the players on the 49ers have suffered through seasons of failure. The patriarchs of the 49ers (Alex Smith, Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, and Joe Staley) finally get to celebrate their first winning season and NFC West title in Red and Gold. They will finally know what it is like to play a meaningful game in January. The patriarchs have led the 49ers for the last six/seven seasons through the darkest days of the franchise enduring multiple coaches and up and down years. Finally their loyalty to the 49ers franchise and to the fans paid off of.
With four games left in the season the 49ers have ten wins and can now look towards catching up with the Packers and securing a first-round playoff bye. It is time for Niner fans to go get those playoff tickets. But first let’s hand out some Game Gold Nuggets.
= VERY GOOD
The two biggest issues on offense continued against the Rams, not scoring touchdowns in the red zone and pass protection. In the first half Alex Smith and the offense looked no different than they played against the Ravens. The first three trips inside the Rams 20-yardline resulted in three field goals. The 49ers should have taken a 21-0 lead into halftime, instead they went in with just a 9-0 lead. As the 49ers defense kept the Rams in check, it allowed the 49ers to come out in the second half ready to put the game away. Normally Smith is automatic and at his best inside the red-zone. In the second half the 49ers avoided the red-zone by scoring touchdowns on two deep passing plays.
Smith (142.3 rating, 274 passing yards, and 2 TD’s) connected with WR’s Michael Crabtree (4 rec, 96 yards and 1 TD’s) on a 52 yard touchdown and Kyle Williams (2 rec, 66 yards and 1 TD’s) on a 56 yard touchdown. That’s one way to avoid the red-zone issues but against better quality offenses, like the Packers and Saints, the 49ers will not be so lucky when not scoring inside the 20.
Smith gets criticized a lot for not having a strong arm and being able to connect on deep passes. His longest pass this season was 44 yards. He could have had three TD passes yesterday of 40 yards or more if not for Vernon Davis’ drop in the end zone in the second quarter on a 40-yard pass. Before he finally connected with Crabtree for a long score and the first TD of the game for the 49ers, Smith missed two back-to-back deep passes to Ted Ginn Jr. Smith, who has had up-and-down seasons with the 49ers, kept trying deep passes in the game which eventually paid off. Just like it paid for Smith to remain with the 49ers after so many fans thought he would/should leave the team.
The 49ers offensive line had nine days to prepare for the Rams and erase the nine sacks against the Ravens. Even though the O-line had time to fix the pass protection issues and were playing the Rams they still allowed four sacks. The O-line made the proper adjustments at halftime only giving up one sack in the second half which allowed the offense to score 17 points and put the game away.
In the second quarter Niner fans were able to celebrate something early as Gore (21 carries, 73 rushing yards) passed Hall of Famer Joe Perry as the 49ers all-time leading rusher. It was only fitting that Gore would become the franchises new all-time rushing leader the same day the team won its first NFC West title with Gore on the team. If anyone on the 49ers deserves the NFC West title the most, it is Gore. He has stayed true to the 49ers since he joined the team and at times was the only thing watchable.
Shutout! Even without Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis who left the game in the first quarter with a hamstring injury, the 49ers defense never let up. LB Larry Grant (6 tackles, 1 sack) filled in nicely for Willis and it was as if he was on the field the whole game. The 49ers D is one of the best in the NFL but it helped that starting QB Sam Bradford was injured and did not play. Backup QB A.J. Feely struggled all game (156 yards, 1 INT) and was sacked four times with two by rookie LB Aldon Smith. The Rams could not get it going through the running game either as the team averaged 1.3 yards on 23 carries. RB Steven Jackson (10 carries, 19 yards) was a non-factor in the game so much so that backup RB Jerious Norwood equaled his production (11 carries, 19 yards).
The 49ers D was relentless all game and almost forced just as many punts (8) as the Rams had first downs (10) in the game. The D forced the Rams to end their drives after four plays or fewer on ten of their 12 drives. The longest drive by the Rams was five plays. Simply, dominate.
When a team has issues scoring inside the red-zone it is always good to have an excellent kicker. The 49ers have David Akers who is keeping the 49ers up/close in games until the offense gets its act together and starts scoring touchdowns. Akers was perfect on his four field goals of 36, 19, 28, and 34 yards. Once again this season Akers was the only player to put points on the board in the first half. Akers has kicked so many field goals this season he set a new franchise record for field goals in a season (32) and needs only 17 more points to break Jerry Rice’s all-time franchise record for most points in a season (138). Now, that’s a lot of field goals.
There were no returns for a touchdown by Ginn as I had predicted. The reason why, is Ginn had only one kickoff return at the start of the game and even though the Rams punted eight times, they avoided Ginn as he returned only three of them.
Andy Lee was Andy Lee with three of his five punts going inside the Rams’ 20. A punt in the first quarter traveled 61 yards.
Jim Harbaugh enjoyed his first Gatorade dumping as head coach of the 49ers. Let’s hope it is the first of many. The Gatorade dumping was done by left tackle Joe Stately as Harbaugh is the man who turned this once lowly franchise back into contenders. All in his first season at the helm with a quarterback everyone thought was a draft bust. Harbaugh got his team ready and focused for the Rams after a devastating loss by not letting team look ahead and assuming the game and NFC West was already won.
Although offensive coordinator Greg Roman can’t seem to figure out why the 49ers cannot convert field goals into touchdowns in the first half of games, he was brilliant again with his different shifts and formations. The shifts and formations confuse defenses and throw them off their game. One example was in the third quarter with the 49ers up 9-0. Roman called for back-to-back runs to Ginn and TE Delaine Walker that resembled end round plays. With the shifts before the snap and play action by Smith, Ginn was able to rush to the left for 16 yards and Walker to right for 14 yards. On the next play Smith connected with Crabtree for a 52-yard TD.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio showed again he can get his D to play at a high level all game. I think Fangio loves the fact that the 49ers lean on their defense to win games when the rest of the NFL relies on their offense. Fangio’s defense shutout an opponent for the first time this season and brings the 49ers average of points given up per game to 13.4.
NEXT UP: @Arizona
The 49ers look to start a winning streak against the 5-7 Cardinals. The Cardinals will enter the game on a two game winning streak after they lost to the 49ers in week 11. Chances look good for the 49ers to push their win total to 11 this season.