The San Francisco 49ers triumphed in the final seconds of the final game of the 2013 NFL regular season with a 40 yard game winning field goal by Phil Dawson to beat the Arizona Cardinals 23-20. It felt like a playoff game. It was played like one too. The San Francisco 49ers were already in the playoffs and the Arizona Cardinals were fighting to keep alive the sliver of a hope they had left of making the playoffs. If you only watched the first half and just happened to miss the second half it really was a tale of two halves. The 49ers managed to rack up 17 early first quarter points, but it would be the only points they would manage to score until late in the fourth quarter.
Arizona would receive the opening kick-off and the Cardinals quickly went three-and-out on their first possession and were forced to punt the ball away. The San Francisco 49ers wasted no time getting Anquan Boldin the ball early and in a number of ways. The 49ers called Boldin’s number on the first three plays of their first offensive drive and even managed to successfully convert an end-around designed for Boldin into an 11 yard first down. After a second end-around by 49ers rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton put the 49ers in scoring position on Arizona’s 9 yard line the 49ers were only able to manufacture a 27 yard field goal by Phil Dawson, to put the 49ers up early 3-0 on the Arizona Cardinals.
Following the field goal, a poor special teams kick-off return by Cardinals returner Javier Arenas put Arizona on their own 12 yard line. On second and six Carson Palmer threw his 22nd interception of the season on a ball intended for Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd. Instead the pass ended up in the arms of NaVorro Bowman, the same San Francisco 49er linebacker who will forever be remembered for the 89 yard “Pick Six at the Stick” in last week’s win over the Atlanta Falcons. Bowman came up with a big break for the 49ers defense as the interception put San Francisco on Arizona’s 22 yard line. After a 5 yard false start penalty the 49ers went on the offensive as Colin Kaepernick found Anquan Boldin for a huge 21 yard pick up and put the 49ers back in the redzone. This time on third and goal Colin Kaepernick would find Anquan Boldin on a back-shoulder fade-route towards the right corner of the endzone for six, putting the San Francisco 49ers up 10-0 on the Arizona Cardinals after the Phil Dawson extra point. The touchdown was Anquan Boldin’s 7th touchdown reception of the year. By the end of the first quarter Anquan Boldin had 117 receiving yards to the 81 total yards of offense the Arizona Cardinals managed to gain as a group, ouch.
Arizona never would find any rhythm in the first quarter, or much of the first half. On the Cardinals second possession of the game, head coach Bruce Arians decided to go for it on fourth and one from the 49ers 43 yard line and running back Rashard Mendenhall was able to push the pile for the first down. That play kept the drive alive but Carson Palmer was unable to complete a third and six pass to receiver Michael Floyd and the drive eventually ended in a missed 37 yard field goal attempt by Cardinal’s kicker Jay Feely, his first miss in his last four games.
San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick picked up right where he left off and got things rolling again. With good field position on third down with four yards to go Kaepernick found Anquan Boldin running a simple quick out route and hit Boldin in stride. Boldin did the rest running for a huge 64-yard pick up, taking the 49ers down to the three yard line. The very next play, on a designed bootleg to the right, Kaepernick found Vernon Davis wide open in the back of the endzone and dropped an easy pass into his hands giving the 49ers a 17-0 lead over the Cardinals and Vernon Davis his 12th touchdown reception of the year. It was also Kaepernick’s 21st touchdown pass of the year, the first time a 49ers quarterback has thrown more than 20 touchdowns in a season since Jeff Garcia did it in 2002.
Arizona’s first five possessions resulted in a punt, interception, missed field goal, punt and punt and it wasn’t until Carson Palmer found Larry Fitzgerald on an out-route for a 49 yard gain with eight minutes to go in the second quarter, that the Arizona Cardinals would get another scoring opportunity, but this time they would make it count. After failing to find the endzone on their first redzone trip, Carson Palmer would finally manage, although the 49ers wouldn’t make it easy. On second and goal Palmer linked up with Fitzgerald again for what looked to be a touchdown, only for Fitzgerald to be denied just short of the goal line. Third and goal was no different as Cardinals running back Andre Ellington was smothered short of the endzone setting up fourth and goal. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians didn’t hesitate and went for it on fourth and goal and it paid off. A designed play action kept the 49ers defense at home and much like the Vernon Davis touchdown earlier, Cardinals tight end Jake Ballard was wide open in the back of the endzone. The extra point made it 17-7 49ers over Cardinals.
On the ensuing kickoff the 49ers would set up an 11-play, 55 yard drive that would just about eat up the remaining 4:46 on the game clock, a drive that saw 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley catch a 14 yard pass, the second of his career. But even Staley’s heroics couldn’t help the 49ers find the endzone after their third redzone trip resulted in a 24 yard field goal attempt and surprising miss by 49ers kicker Phil Dawson, a miss wide left from the left side hash marks. The Arizona Cardinals would kneel to end the half, down 17-7 to the visiting San Francisco 49ers.
Neither team seemed to get anything going nor could either get any breaks to go their way to start the second half. The 49ers were forced to punt on their first drive in the second half and Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall was stripped by 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman and Bowman also recovered the fumble on Arizona’s 37 yard line. The back and forth of offensive exchanges and defensive stands would come to head with a fourth and inches for San Francisco on Arizona’s 16 yard line with just under nine minutes remaining in the third quarter. 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh opted to go for it, running up the middle with running back Anthony Dixon on a full back dive, a decision I’m sure he regrets in hindsight, as Dixon would not get enough for the first down. The spot on the field would be challenged by Coach Harbaugh but the ruling was upheld and it was a turnover on downs. This was the story for the 49ers running game today as they were stopped frequently and for minimal gains. Six different players carried the ball and the 4th round pick from Louisiana Tech, Quinton Patton, ending up with the most rushing yards for the 49ers today, a whopping 26 yards on one carry for a team that was held to 83 yards on 23 carries with no touchdowns.
Following the 49ers failed fourth down attempt the Cardinals wasted no time in airing the ball out as Palmer found receiver Michael Floyd for a 44 yard gain down field. The play would not mean much as Arizona turned the ball over on downs. Tight end Jake Ballard was whistled for a false start on what would have been third and one, but instead became third and six. The Cardinals would be forced to go for it on fourth and six and failed to convert for a first down. The 49ers took over on downs from the would be forced to punt after another troubling offensive series saw Frank Gore (13 carries for 14 yards) gaining 1 yard followed by Anthony Dixon catching a pass for 8 yards, then subsequently running for a loss of 5 yards. The Cardinals ended the third quarter with a drive that got them to the 49ers 31 yard line setting up an exciting fourth quarter season finale that came down to the final seconds in the fourth quarter.
To start the fourth quarter the Cardinals failed to complete a pass to pick up the first down sending Cardinals kicker Jay Feely out to attempt and make a field goal from 49 yards out, inching the Cardinals closer as the score now read 17-10 49ers over Cardinals. The 49ers offensive woes continued in the fourth quarter even with a promising start to their next drive as Kaepernick found Vernon Davis for a pick up of 26 yards, but the drive would result in the 49ers punting for the 5th time in the game. Arizona would take over on their own 9 yard line and put together an impressive drive of 8 plays for 66 yards. On third and seven Carson Palmer found an open receiver in Andre Roberts for a big 27 yard gain that kept Arizona’s drive going. The next play Palmer found tight end Rob Housler for another 30 yards and just like that Arizona was making it a game. With the Cardinals facing a third and one, Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall failed to pick up a first down and Coach Bruce Arians opted to kick the field goal and hopefully get points on fourth down, but a 43 yard attempt by Jay Feely would swing wide right and the 49ers would take over on downs from their own 33 yard line.
The 49ers next offensive drive would quickly sputter in a downward spiral as Kaepernick was sacked for a loss of 13 by Cardinals defensive tackle Dan Williams. Later on the same drive Kaepernick would be forced to scramble on third and eighteen but would only pick up five yards. Following the play, Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett who made the tackle, ended up as the instigator of a short lived scuffle between both teams. Dockett appeared to use his knee to get up and applied the weight of his 6 foot 4 inch, 290 pound body on his knee, the same knee which was on Kaepernick’s chest as Kaepernick lied on the ground. The officials quickly broke the players up but it added to the drama of the second half as the Cardinals were attempting to comeback from 17 points down. It would have been the Cardinals first win after a 17 point deficit in more than a decade since they last did it on 9/12/1999 against the Eagles in Philadelphia.
The 49ers were forced to punt for the sixth time and the Cardinals took over on their own 40 yard line. Carson Palmer connected with tight end Robert Housler for 14 yards and another 15 yard pick up to Andre Roberts. On third and fourteen Palmer found Andre Roberts again, this time in one-on-one coverage against 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock along the left sideline for a 34 yard touchdown strike. The play would be reveiwed but it was clear that Roberts was able to get both feet inbounds and maintained possession through the catch to confirm the touchdown. The Arizona Cardinals had evened the game 17-17 with 3:20 remaining in regulation.
With the 49ers facing a total collapse in the season finale it was time for Kaepernick and the 49ers offense to wake up and get points on the board. The 49ers had squandered opportunities and though the game had very little meaning for the 49ers as far as playoff implications you wouldn’t want to see a 17 point lead disappear after jumping in front 17-0 early heading into the playoffs. Kaepernick got the offense going hitting Vernon Davis for a 16 yard pick up. Later on the drive Kaepernick found Boldin along the sideline but the ball was thrown high and Boldin adjusted making a difficult catch look simple, a pick up of 17 yards. The drive eventually ran out of gas and on third and two from the Arizona 36 yard line, Kaepernick attempted to squeeze a pass to receiver Quinton Patton but the pass would fall incomplete leaving the 49ers little option and sending Phil Dawson up to attempt and nail a 56 yard field which would match his career long. It also gave the 49ers a short lived lead 20-17 with 1:45 remaining in regulation.
All game long Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was getting the help he needed from his receiving crew in Larry Fitzgerald (6 catches, 113 yards), Michael Floyd (6 catches, 91 yards) and Robert Housler (5 catches, 78 yards) and the trend continued as Palmer hit Housler for a 24 yard pick up with just over a minute left. Arizona would continue to drive as Palmer would connect this time with Fitzgerald for a 23 yard gain putting the Cardinals in field goal position. A third and eight pass to Andre Roberts was incomplete and Jay Feely would attempt a 43 yard field goal after a 5 yard delay of game penalty against the 49ers moved the ball to the 26 yard line. Feely knocked it clean through the uprights, tied game, 20-20.
Arizona would be forced to kick the ball back to the 49ers with :29 seconds left on the game clock. It felt like the Atlanta Falcons luck had found it’s way to Arizona as LaMichael James broke the kickoff down the left hash marks and looked to be breaking for a big gain when the ball suddenly popped loose and Arizona had recovered. Fortunately for the 49ers, James was down by contact at the 35 yard line so the 49ers would keep the possession and continue their drive to win the game. Colin Kaepernick found his go-to receiver for the game, Anquan Boldin for another 18 yards moving the ball to the Cardinals 46 yard line. After a timeout, Colin Kaepernick was not able to get the play off in time resulting in a 5 yard delay of game penalty. Following the penalty Quinton Patton made what was probably the biggest catch of the game and his rookie season, (mind you it was only his third catch of his young career) and pulled in an amazing sideline catch jumping over and around Cardinals cornerback Antonie Cason for a 29 yard reception which would set up the game winning, 40 yard attempt for Phil Dawson. Like the headline of this blog stated it should be no surprise that I’m telling you Phil Dawson hit that 40 yard game winner giving the 49ers a final record of 12-4 as well as the 5th overall seed in the NFC playoffs. The loss ended the Cardinals playoff hopes and their season as the Cardinals final record is 10-6.
It’s not exactly how I would want to enter the playoffs if I’m 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh, but the 49ers end the regular season with a 6 game winning streak. None of those games during this winning streak came easy aside from the 27-6 romping of the Redskins on Monday Night Football, the only real blowout game during that stretch. What we should take away from this game is that the struggling passing game got a chance to breathe again, as Colin Kaepernick went over 300 yards passing (310 yards today vs. Cardinals) for the first time since week 1 against the Green Bay Packers when he threw for 412 yards.
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was 21-34 on passing attempts and it was good to see the two touchdowns to zero interceptions today, but Kaepernick still looks out of sync with his receivers throwing errant passes behind, above and too low on what should be routine throws to open receivers. Boldin and Patton made big catches late in the game on passes that weren’t thrown very well, and despite the stats his QBR (quarterback rating) was only 68.6 versus the Cardinals defense. Anquan Boldin would also finish the season against Arizona much like he started the season against Green Bay, as the 49ers main offensive weapon. Boldin tallied 9 catches for 149 yards and one touchdown, his longest catch gained 63 yards as he was easily the most valuable player in the season finale.
Although it was good to see Quinton Patton show up when it counted and make the big play to put the 49ers in field goal range, he should not be bailing the 49ers out in the final seconds of a tied game. The ground game was horrible and it will be up to the coaching staff to figure out the adjustments to their game plan going into the playoffs and the 49ers coaching staff will need to find a way to get the ground game on track as it has proven to be the crutch for the 49ers offense.
Overall the 49ers offense was just not productive after the first quarter and any type of offensive meltdown on the road in the playoffs would not favor the 49ers since the 49ers have struggled on the offensive side of the ball this year. With Carolina and Seattle looming in the playoffs, teams that beat the 49ers this year, the 49ers will need to rely on their offense as much as their defense during the post-season because it will not get any easier from here on. The San Francisco 49ers will march into The Frozen Tundra at Lambeau Field in Green Bay next week (Sunday, Jan. 5th, 1:40 PST kick-off) to face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in a NFC Wild Card match up. The 49ers season began in Green Bay, but will the season continue or end in Green Bay next week? Check back later in the week for playoff analysis and breakdown of the game on 49ers360.com.