The game had been over for 30 minutes Sunday, but no tape had been unwrapped from ankles and wrists, no eye black had been wiped from faces. Instead the 49ers players stood in groups around the locker room intently watching the end of the Vikings-Packers game on a few flat-screen televisions above their lockers and rooting feverishly for the team in purple.
"He looks nervous," defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said of Viking rookie kicker Blair Walsh before he attempted a 29-yard kick at the end of regulation. "Gimme that bye week!" left tackle Joe Staley called out as Walsh made contact.
The kick sailed through as time expired, sending the Vikings into the playoffs, triggering raucous celebration inside the 49ers locker room and giving San Francisco the No. 2 playoff seed for the second straight season. That means the 49ers, 27-13 winners over the Cardinals Sunday, will have a coveted week off before hosting a divisional-round game on Saturday, Jan. 12 at 5 p.m.
It also means all but one team, the No. 1-seeded Atlanta Falcons, must go to Candlestick Park if they want to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. "I congratulate them for getting that done in maybe arguably the best division in football," Jim Harbaugh said of his players afterward. "And it gives you a chance to now go for the big championship. That's all you can ask for - one more game."
Sunday was a lesson in how quickly fortunes - and momentum - can change in the NFL.
At this point last week, the 49ers were reeling from a brutal loss to the Seahawks and wondering how they would carry on without defensive stalwart Justin Smith. That sense of unease continued into the first quarter against Arizona as the 49ers only gained 15 yards and found themselves trailing the five-win Cardinals 6-0.
A second quarter sparked by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and receiver Michael Crabtree, however, gave the 49ers back their groove. The two connected four times for 97 yards in the period, including on a 49-yard touchdown pass. Crabtree would go on to have the best statistical game of his career, catching another touchdown in the third quarter, finishing with a career-high 172 yards and becoming the first 49ers to gain more than 1,000 receiving yards in a season since Terrell Owens did it in 2003.
Crabtree's first touchdown gave San Francisco only a one-point lead heading into halftime but a hint that the dark clouds that surrounded the 49ers recently were lifting.
"It's tough when you're starting off pushed against your own end zone," said Kaepernick, who finished with a career-high 276 passing yards and a 114.6 passer rating. "You can't open up the playbook like you want to. So once we got off our own end zone, we were able to call some plays we thought we could take some shots with."
The blowout win also gave the 49ers a head start on resting starters like defensive end Ray McDonald, who has played virtually every snap in a season that has included two overtime games and a marathon affair in New England.
More important, it gives Smith another week to rest.
The 12-year veteran was the 49ers' most dominating player during their postseason run last year. This year he is dealing with a partial tear of his left triceps tendon, but he said he will be on the field for the playoffs. The injury is healing on its own, and every week Smith has to rest and rehabilitate increases his strength and lowers the risk of a complete tendon tear.
"He was just talking about it," linebacker Patrick Willis said of Smith and the benefit of the bye. "He's feeling better and the more time you have to rehab .. the better off you'll be. Like I said, he's a big guy for us, a marquee guy. And we love having him out there with us. Hopefully he'll be out there with us when it's time to play again."
-- Matt Barrows