COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers jumped all over their divisional rival Arizona Cardinals 17-0 in the first quarter on Sunday. It was this performance out of the gate that led many of us to believe that the 49ers would roll all over what was a hot Cardinals team that still had playoff expectations. Unfortunately for those of you who give a lot of credence to style points, San Francisco allowed Arizona to remain in the game and needed a last-second Phil Dawson field goal to win the game.
Skeptics will conclude that the 49ers lack that knockout punch. While I have indicated this to be the case multiple times during the regular season, there is something to be said about resilience and an ability to overcome obstacles.
This is exactly what Jim Harbaugh's squad did Sunday in the desert. Seemingly resorted to the fact that they would have to play a wildcard game with the Seattle Seahawks dominating St. Louis in the Pacific Northwest, San Francisco rebounded from a series of horrendous offensive possessions and a lackluster defensive performance to wake up and come through when it counted the most.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had his second-best passing day of the season, going for over 300 yards and two scores through the air. The third-year player has now put up over 2,900 total yards with 22 touchdowns compared to four interceptions for a quarterback rating in the triple digits since San Francisco's Week 3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
San Francisco was forced to rely on the passing game simply because it couldn't get anything going on the ground against the No. 1 run defense in the NFL. In fact, its two leading rushers were Quinton Patton and Kaepernick. Running back Frank Gore, who needed just 47 yards to top the 10,000-yard mark for his career, was held to just 14 yards on 13 attempts.
While the 49ers ground game was ugly, their anemic performance on that side of the ball enabled Harbaugh and Co. to get a better understanding of where their passing game stands. In this, Kaepernick showed that he is a threat to beat some of the best defenses in the league with his arm. He spread the ball out to seven different receiving options, including Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley. He consistently relied on Anquan Boldin to make plays against various Cardinals defensive backs. In the process, Kaepernick proved skeptics wrong. He hasn't regressed as a quarterback and is playing his best football of the season. That much cannot be denied.
One of the most important players in this game was rookie receiver Quinton Patton, who put up 60 yards on three touches. Kaepernick's 29-yard pass to Patton following a Jay Feely field goal to tie the game set up a Phil Dawson game-winning kick. If you go back and watch that play, you will notice that the young quarterback showed a tremendous amount of trust in his even younger receiver. Throwing it to the outside in what was good coverage, Kaepernick placed the ball in a perfect position for Patton to come down with a dazzling catch.
It's these types of big plays that will help San Francisco moving forward into the playoffs. If Kaepernick can continue to excel through the air, it will open up running lanes for Gore and the running game. Once defenses decide they have to hone in on the running game, Kaepernick can beat them deep. This is exactly what general manager Trent Baalke was going for when he added both Patton and Boldin to the roster in the offseason. It's the idea that defenses cannot hone in on one aspect of the game.
As worried as you might be about San Francisco's defense yielding nearly 500 total yards to the Cardinals on Sunday, you should be as excited about how its offense opened things up when it really needed to.
Could Kaepernick and Co. be getting hot at the right time? If so, the 49ers are going to be a downright scary team in the playoffs.
Stayed tuned to this page throughout the week for previews of San Francisco's wildcard matchup against the Green Bay Packers.
Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called "Football Debate Central" with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.
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