Both losses at home by the 49ers this season were by a field goal in overtime. This one in the NFC Championship Game brought a painful end to a resurgent season for the San Francisco 49ers. As the team gets ready for a busy offseason, here are five things we learned.
In a tightly played playoff game, a mistake or missed opportunity will eventually come back and haunt a team. Ray McDonald knocked the ball from Eli Manning’s hand on a first quarter sack but the 49ers couldn’t cover it. Giants tackle Kareem McKenzie was finally able to pull it in to prevent the turnover.
Another instance that was talked about briefly but not in any depth was on the 49ers first possession of the third quarter when they faced fourth and six on the Giants’ 49 yard line and down 10-7. Justin Tuck was called for a running into the kicker penalty when he made contact with Andy Lee while attempting to block the punt.
The 49ers’ defense had just held the Giants to a three-and-out on their previous possession and it seemed like a situation where the usually aggressive Jim Harbaugh would take a chance, especially since Frank Gore had carried 10 times for 50 yards at that point. Instead, the 49ers declined the penalty and took the results of the kick, which had been downed at the New York 7 yard line.
2. The 49ers’ couldn’t find a way to adjust in the passing game to what the Giants were doing on defense.
There was one Michael Crabtree sighting during the game. He emerged in the fourth quarter, caught a pass for three yards, saw his shadow and the result was it will be seven months before the 49ers play another game.
Vernon Davis continued the year-long demonstration to the football world that strategies will have to be developed in the offseason to deal with the special problems that big, mobile tight ends create. In the first quarter Davis beat Antrel Rolle down the right sideline and pulled in a perfectly thrown ball by Alex Smith to give the 49ers a 7-0 lead. Smith and Davis struck for another touchdown pass of 28 yards in the third quarter to retake the lead in the game.
148 of Smith’s 196 passing yards in the game were generated on passes to tight ends Davis and Delanie Walker. The lack of production from the wide receivers played a big part in the 49ers being 1-13 on third down conversions.
3. The 49ers defense did everything in the game but create turnovers
The 49ers’ defense kept the Giants’ running game under control, only allowing 85 yards on 26 carries. Their defensive front hit Eli Manning hard and often, sacking him 6 times and hitting him a total of 20 times as he was throwing.
Despite all of it Manning was able to achieve a 101.1 passer rating but threw for a mediocre 4.2 Real Passing Yards per attempt average. What Manning was able to do was spread the ball around to eight different receivers while biding his time and taking advantage of his opportunities when they presented themselves.
Another area where the 49ers fell short was in creating turnovers. The 49ers led the NFL with a +28 turnover differential but couldn’t force the Giants into even one turnover that might have turned the game their way. The great closing speed that enabled the 49ers to limit yards after the catch and quickly close running lanes worked against them on two interception opportunities when defensive backs knocked each other off the football while defending the pass.
One turnover it appeared the 49ers had created was just before the two minute warning when Ahmad Bradshaw had the ball stripped out of his grasp by 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman which was recovered at the 20 yard line. Elation turned to anger when the 49ers’ sideline realized the officials had ruled that the whistle blew when Bradshaw’s forward progress had stopped and the Giants would retain possession.
It’s unfortunate that there was no replay review that could be called on the play because it did look as if there was a very quick whistle on what should have been a fumble. The officials had made their decision though and the team had to live with it.
Having Ted Ginn Jr. Inactive for the game made a bigger difference than anyone thought.
Ted Ginn Jr. has been in the league five years and has primarily been a kick and punt returner each season. He was inactive for the game against the Giants because of a knee injury and that loss of his experience created the eventual turning points in the game.
Kyle Williams had only returned three kickoffs and two punts during the season, all in week 15 against the Seahawks. That lack of experience caught up to the 49ers in a game where the Giants were forced to punt 12 times.
After the Giants’ first possession in the fourth quarter, Steve Weatherford punted 56 yards which Williams waved off and backed away from but not far enough. Devin Thomas noticed the ball had grazed William’s knee and alertly picked up the ball. That action secured possession for the Giants on the 49ers’ 29 yard line when the replay awarded the ball to New York. That turnover led to Manning’s 17 yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham and put New York back in the lead 17-14.
Williams ran hard on the ensuing kickoff and provided great field position at the 49ers’ 45 yard line. The 49ers took that advantage on the drive that ended in a David Akers 25 yard field goal that tied the score at 17.
The last fumble was with 9:42 left in overtime when what had to have been a slick ball came out as Williams was being tackled at the 49ers’ 24 yard line. Devin Thomas scooped that one up too. The Giants were already in Lawrence Tyne’s range at that point but moved it closer in before kicking the 31 yard field goal that ended the 49er’s season.
The 49ers came a long way this season from where they had been the past 10 years to play in the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers didn’t just miss the playoffs since their last appearance after the 2002 season; they haven’t even been in the conversation over that time. The loss and the way it took place is painful, but after a while they’re going to remember how much they accomplished in 2011.
It’s obvious from the performances in the game that the wide receiver position for the 49ers needs to be addressed for Alex Smith to continue to progress and give the team an opportunity to reach this point next season.
One advantage the 49ers will have is a full offseason of OTA’s and mini-camps to try and accomplish the improvements that will be needed for next season. Then we’ll see if they’re ready to take that next step to Super Bowl XLVII.