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49ers get a win and a first-round bye

The SportsXchange

SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco 49ers held a pair of celebrations Sunday at Candlestick Park.

After beating the Arizona Cardinals 27-13 and capturing their second straight NFC West title, the 49ers celebrated on the field.

Then minutes later in their locker room, the 49ers watched on television as Minnesota beat Green Bay 37-34 with a last-second field goal, giving the 49ers a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs and kicking off an even wilder celebration.

"That was big," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "Big ups to the Vikings for doing that. It gives us a chance to get healthy and hopefully get one of our marquee guys back."

The 49ers (11-4-1) prevailed Sunday without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith, who missed his second straight game with a partial tear of his left triceps tendon and a bone spur in his left elbow.

They had more than enough star power on both sides of the ball to beat Arizona (5-11), though.

Wide receiver Michael Crabtree caught eight passes for a career-high 172 yards and two touchdowns, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick completed 16 of 28 passes for a career-high 276 yards and two scores.

"I'm really focused on these playoffs, with how bad I did last year," Crabtree said. "In my opinion, I feel like I didn't do what I was supposed to do. I feel like I get another chance. I'm back again, and I'm just ready to win."

Crabtree caught just one pass for three yards in the NFC title game last season when the 49ers lost 20-17 in overtime to the Giants. He had four catches for 25 yards and a TD in a 36-32 playoff win over New Orleans the week before.

"Crab has unbelievable this season," Willis said. "That's the way it should be. We know what he's capable of. He comes to work every day and has a great attitude. We're going to need him to continue to make those big plays."

Arizona quarterback Brian Hoyer, making his first career start, went 19 of 34 for 225 yards and one touchdown, a 37-yard strike to Michael Floyd with 1:59 left to play. Hoyer became the fourth quarterback this season to start a game for Arizona and coach Ken Whisenhunt, who's future with the team is in doubt.

"You understand that's part of the business," Whisenhunt said. "We haven't won enough games this year. That's the bottom line. It doesn't matter that you had injuries, that you had changes in personnel, or if you're playing rookies. Ultimately, that's the way it goes. But our guys played hard all year, and I'm proud of that. But like I said, it's something I can't control."

Whisenhunt said he expects to be back next season with the Cardinals.

"I've got a contract," he said. "I think that's the way you have to look at it."

Crabtree entered the game with 933 receiving yards and wasted little time becoming the first 49er to crack the 1,000-yard mark since Terrell Owens in 2003.

Crabtree caught four passes for 116 yards in the first half, including a 49-yard touchdown reception that put the 49ers ahead 7-6 with 7:20 left before intermission.

On the 49ers' first possession of the second half, Crabtree caught a key 28-yard pass that gave him 144 yards, snapping his previous career high of 122, set on Dec. 26, 2010, at St. Louis.

"He's a playmaker," Kaepernick said of Crabtree. "That's what he does. You just try to get the ball in his hands."

The 49ers marched 54 yards in nine plays on that drive and extended their lead to 10-6 on a 43-yard field goal by David Akers, who had missed twice in the first half, from 44 yards and then 40, and continued to struggle.

"We'll evaluate the position," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of Akers. "It's his job to make the field goals."

The San Francisco defense forced a quick three-and-out on the Cardinals' first second-half possession. Ricky Jean Francois sacked Hoyer for a nine-yard loss, and then linebacker Ahmad Brooks dropped him for another nine-yard loss. On third down, Willis stopped running back William Powell for no gain.

Ted Ginn Jr. returned Dave Zastudil's punt 28 yards to the Arizona 38. On second down, Kaepernick fired a strike over the middle to tight end Delanie Walker for 27 yards.

On third-and-goal from the 7, Kaepernick and Crabtree hooked up for another touchdown, putting the 49ers ahead 17-6 with 5:58 left in the third. Crabtree went in motion, right to left, and angled sharply toward to the left sideline, getting a step ahead of Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who went for the interception but whiffed.

"This game was just like how our season was," Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said. "We started fast but we didn't make enough plays. Missed some opportunities, and we didn't do enough to win."

The 49ers upped their lead to 24-6 with 12:59 left on Frank Gore's two-yard touchdown run, capping a 12-play, 72-yard drive. Gore scored his 51st career rushing touchdown, breaking the franchise record he shared with Joe Perry and Roger Craig.

"It's a blessing," Gore said. "My whole career ... a lot of people doubted me."

Crabtree, naturally, had a huge play on the drive, making a 14-yard catch on fourth-and-6 from the Cardinals' 36. On the next play, Kaepernick hit Gore in the right flat for 14 yards to the Arizona 8. Three plays later, Gore powered into the end zone.

Akers' 26-yard field goal made it 27-6 with 9:07 left.

With 5:57 left to play, Alex Smith came off the bench to a warm reception when he replaced Kaepernick. Smith completed his only pass for six yards.

"I'm extremely happy with the win," Harbaugh said. "That was our mission, that was the one thing we wanted to get done today. And we got that done. Be a champion. The Western Division champions, that means a lot to us and to our players. And I congratulate them for getting that done. And maybe arguably the best division in football. And it gives us a chance to now go for the big championship. That's all you can ask for is to have one more game."

The 49ers spotted Arizona a 6-0 lead in the first half on a pair of Jay Feely field goals before marching 80 yards in two plays for the go-ahead score.

On the drive's first play, Kaepernick hit Crabtree for 31 yards on a post pattern to the Arizona 49. Kaepernick and Crabtree then capitalized on a coverage meltdown by the Cardinals.

Crabtree, lined up in the left slot, had free safety Kerry Rhodes in front of him when he began his route. But Rhodes angled toward the flat, and Crabtree headed toward the left sideline, then shot past Peterson.

Kaepernick hit the wide-open Crabtree for a 49-yard score.

"He's done it many times this year, multiple games where he's given us a big lift and a big spark," Harbaugh said of Crabtree. "He's stepped up. He's made plays."

NOTES: Jean Francois started in place of Smith for the 49ers. ... Cardinals starting left tackle Nate Potter was inactive with an ankle injury. D'Anthony Batiste, a seventh-year pro from Louisiana-Lafayette, started in his place. ... Jim Dray started at fullback for Arizona in place of Anthony Sherman, who was inactive because of a knee injury. ... Cardinals starting right guard Pat McQuistan injured his left ankle late in the first quarter and did not return to the game. Senio Kelemete replaced him. ... Arizona linebacker Paris Lenon injured his left hand in the second half. ... Niners outside linebacker Aldon Smith entered the game with 19.5 sacks, three behind Michael Strahan's NFL record, but he didn't record a sack.
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