49ers' road to playoffs had highs, lows, detours
Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 4:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 1:00 p.m.
David Akers raised his arms triumphantly at midfield and then doubled over, bowing his head to the ground.
Anthony Dixon picked him up and hoisted him into the air. Behold, David Akers! The 49ers dashed from the sideline to midfield to get to him. Jim Harbaugh got to him first, jumped over Dixon and slapped Akers on the helmet.
Akers was the hero. Akers had done it.
He had made a 63-yard field goal, tied for the longest in the history of the NFL. Akers had given the 49ers a nine-point lead over the Packers in Green Bay. And then the first half of the first game of the season ended.
This was the first defining moment of the 49ers' season -- there are five in all. At the time, it seemed to symbolize three simple things: David Akers is a Super Kicker, the 49ers are better than they were last season, and they're going to win the Super Bowl.
But the 63-yard kick didn't end up symbolizing any of those things. The 49ers' season has been complex. They played well, but they lost or tied every third game, and Akers missed 13 field-goal tries.
Now, Akers' big kick is a defining moment for a different reason. For Akers, it symbolizes a level he likely never will attain again.
2. Alex Smith injured
The pocket collapsed around Alex Smith. He pulled the ball down and scrambled to the left. He escaped the pass rusher. He was in the clear.
Smith could have thrown the ball out of bounds. He'd done that plenty of times on broken plays. If there was ever a time to throw it away, this was that time.
But Smith didn't throw the ball away. He tucked it under his left arm and ran past the line of scrimmage, intent on gaining yards. One yard past the line of scrimmage, he saw a linebacker running toward him and he decided to get down.
But Smith didn't get all the way down. He should have slid, but he twisted his torso, turned his back and sat on the ground, leaving the back of his head exposed. He gave the linebacker a free shot, and he took it. Smith left the game a few plays later, and never reclaimed his starting job.
For a few seconds as he scrambled out of the pocket Smith controlled his own fate. If he had thrown the ball away, he would still be the quarterback and the 49ers' season would be completely different.
3. Kaepernick in prime time
It was the third play of the 49ers' second offensive series, and it was third-and-7. Jonathan Goodwin snapped the ball. The quarterback, in the shotgun, took a five-step drop, planted his back foot and rocketed a perfect 57-yard pass to Kyle Williams.
The quarterback was not Alex Smith. The quarterback was backup Colin Kaepernick, and the game was on Monday night against the Chicago Bears. After that throw, Kaepernick wasn't the backup anymore. He was the starter and everyone knew it. No one thought it would happen on one throw.
4. Team loses its best player
There were 10 minutes left in the third quarter on the road against New England. The 49ers were winning 24-3, their defense jogged onto the field and something didn't look right. Right away, they gave up a long touchdown drive, the first they'd given up in the game. What happened?
Suddenly, there was Justin Smith jogging on the sideline to the locker room. He'd torn his triceps and he was out.
This was the least dramatic of the 49ers' defining moments -- if there was a moment in which something actually happened, we missed it. It was the moment they lost their best player. The 49ers almost collapsed after that. They gave up a 28-point lead in 15 minutes to the Patriots, and a week later got blown out by the Seahawks.
The 49ers may still win the Super Bowl, but defining moment No. 4 made the task difficult.
5. Crabtree becomes elite
The 49ers were beating the Cardinals 24-6 in the fourth quarter of the last game of the regular season, and Michael Crabtree caught a seven-yard pass. There was nothing extraordinary about the catch, but it gave him 172 receiving yards in the game -- the most a 49ers receiver gained since Terrell Owens a decade earlier.
Passing Owens is significant for Crabtree. Owens was the last great 49ers receiver. Crabtree was considered a bust his first three seasons. But he has ascended to the level of Owens. Crabtree is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and he's a better teammate than Owens ever was.
The emergence of Crabtree as an offensive stud may offset the defense's loss of Justin Smith. We will find out on Saturday.
Grant Cohn writes The Press Democrat's Inside the 49ers blog at 49ers.pressdemocrat.com.
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