The Cardinals came into Sunday's game at Candlestick with little more than pride to play for. The 49ers, on the other hand, needed a victory to clinch their second consecutive NFC West title. A victory also would keep them in the running for the No. 2 seed and the first-round bye that goes along with it.
Arizona came out strong against a 49ers team that was slow to get into top gear, dominating the first quarter. The Cardinals outgained the 49ers 129-15 in the opening term and staked themselves to a 6-0 lead early in the second. The 49ers soon came alive and dominated the overmatched visitors for the rest of the game on their way to a 27-13 victory.
The 49ers clinched the division title, and thanks to an amazing performance by Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings, were able to leapfrog the Packers and attain the No. 2 seed in the NFC. If things go as planned in the Wild Card round, San Francisco will get to host Green Bay, instead of the other way around.
The bye will come in handy for a 49ers team nursing plenty of injuries. None are more important than Justin Smith. His absence has been felt all over the defense, and Aldon Smith has failed to record a sack since Justin left halfway through the Patriots game in Week 15.
For the 49ers, Michael Crabtree turned in his best performance as a pro. He collected 8 receptions for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He helped turn the tide in his team's favor in the second quarter, accounting for all of the yards on a two-play, 80-yard dash to the end zone. He converted two fourth downs and repeatedly found his way open in the Cardinals' secondary. He was matched up with Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson for much of the day and got the better of him on most occasions.
Feeding the ball to Crabtree was Colin Kaepernick. He played another solid game, finishing 16 for 28, 276 yards and two touchdowns. The 276 yards marks a career high for Kaepernick. He averaged 9.9 yards per attempt on the day, frequently testing the top-tier Cardinals' secondary with long throws. He finished the season with a 76.8 in ESPN's QBR, good for third in the league, behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Frank Gore surpassed Roger Craig and Joe Perry for the most rushing touchdowns in franchise history after punching in the 51st of his career in the fourth quarter. On the day, Gore was held quiet by the Arizona defense, gaining 68 yards on 20 carries. His long was 9 yards, the shortest 'long' run of the season for him.
While Gore was held at bay and prevented from making big plays, his backfield mate, LaMichael James flourished. He gained 26 yards on his first run of the day, and had two other runs of more than 10 yards. He finished with 49 yards on 7 carries. His three big runs accounted for 48 of his 49 yards, meaning his other 4 runs netted 1 yard. He seems completely unable to get the 5-yard gain, a crucial element to the 49ers' offense.
While James appears to be fully integrated into the 49ers' offense, the same can't be said for first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins. He played 17 snaps and finally saw his first target of the season. It was a crossing route on third-and-5 and he had his man beat in the right flat. Kaepernick hit him in the hands, with touch, and he dropped it. He didn't see another ball come his way. The 49ers desperately need help at the WR position following season-ending injuries to Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham, and Jenkins has yet to deliver.
One of the more bizarre plays of the game was on a batted ball thrown by fill-in Cardinals' quarterback Brian Hoyer. The ball, after being swatted into the air, appeared destined to land in the hands of Isaac Sopoaga. Rookie Cardinals OL Senio Kelemete, playing his first game of the season leapt up and snatched the ball from Sopoaga's hands. He then lumbered forward for a 10-yard gain. It should be noted that with this grab, Kelemete surpassed AJ Jenkins on the rookie receptions list.
The 49ers' defense played well after sleepwalking through the first quarter. They were able to withstand the Cardinals onslaught without giving up any touchdowns, before clamping down on Arizona for the rest of the game. They forced two turnovers, a fumble and an interception, and held the Cardinals to 262 yards on the day. All this after giving up 129 in the opening quarter.
Ricky Jean-Francois filled in well for the injured Justin Smith, who swears he'll be ready to play in the playoffs. Francois had 6 tackles and a sack and played a role in limiting the Cardinals to 55 yards on the ground on a 3.2 yard per carry average.
With Justin Smith out, Aldon Smith has gone flat. He went into Week 15 needing 3.5 sacks to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record. J Smith left the Patriots game early in the second half and Aldon hasn't had a sack since. Justin will be back in the playoffs, but if he's less than 100%, how much will he add to Aldon's game? The 49ers' need Aldon to return to his dominant, midseason form. Both New England and Seattle scored at will agains the 49ers and the Cardinals 13 points could also be viewed as a solid output for them, all things considered.
David Akers had a day he'd soon like to forget. He missed two field goals from less than 45 yards in the first half. By then, Coach Harbaugh's confidence had eroded and the team was forced to go for it on fourth down multiple times. Akers was given the opportunity to make two kicks later in the game, once the outcome had been more-or-less decided, which he made.
In response, the 49ers have signed free agent kicker Billy Cundiff, who famously missed the game-tying field goal for the Baltimore Ravens last year in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. There's no telling if this is an upgrade, but if Akers doesn't have the mettle to make 40-yarders, he'll have to replaced going into the playoffs.
Aside from Crabtree's big day, there wasn't much to go wild about in this game. Few players stood out against an Arizona team that was lifeless for most of the season. They fired their coach Ken Wisenhunt the following day. But, the 49ers did what they were supposed to do, which was win. The Vikings helped them out immensely with their victory over the Packers, bumping the Niners up to the second seed. The 49ers will enjoy their week off and hopefully iron out some of the kinks and inconsistencies that have plagued them this season.