GLENDALE, AZ. - Rookie receiver Quinton Patton took over Mario Manningham's role in the 49ers offense on Sunday and made a Manningham-like play along the sideline in the critical closing moments.
With 18 seconds remaining and with the game seemingly headed to overtime, quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked to his right and saw that the Cardinals had one-on-one, press coverage with Patton. Heading into the game, Patton's stat line consisted of one catch for zero yards, and he only recently had taken over the No. 3 receiver duties from Manningham, who is best known for his critical sideline grab for the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI and who was placed on injured reserve on Friday.
But Kaepernick said he had confidence that the brash and energetic rookie could beat his man off the line of scrimmage. "He's very aggressive, he's very quick, and he's shown that he can beat press coverage," Kaepernick said of Patton. "The more he does that, the more he'll get the ball."
As Kaepernick's pass descended 29 yards down field, however, Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason actually had excellent position and seemed to have a good shot at an interception. But Patton, who was sandwiched between Cason and the sideline, leaped over the cornerback, snagged the ball and landed in bounds. The 49ers called their final time out with two seconds remaining, setting up Phil Dawson's 40-yard field goal as time expired and giving the 49ers a 23-20 win.
Patton had more than 2,500 receiving yards the last two seasons at Louisiana Tech, but he said he'd never made a catch like that before. His approach? "Just jump and, 'Hey, come on, Jesus, put the ball in my hands,'" he said.
Last week's last-minute heroics by Tramaine Brock and NaVorro Bowman locked up a playoff berth for the 49ers. Sunday's final-second drama meant that they will go to Green Bay on Sunday to take on Aaron Rogers and the Packers.
"We know where we're headed," Jim Harbaugh said. "This (game) is only for the tough. We've known that for a while now. Our guys have been through some tough ball games. We know it will be more of the same coming."
For the second straight week, end-of-game euphoria masked concerns for San Francisco. The 49ers jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter as Kaepernick continually hit Anquan Boldin, who spent his first seven seasons with Arizona.
With Arizona's top cornerback, Patrick Peterson, shadowing Michael Crabtree throughout the game, Kaepernick said the 49ers figured Boldin would be a difficult match up for the opponent's other cornerback, Jerraud Powers.
The 49ers were right.
Boldin caught the first two passes of the day for San Francisco, had 106 yards and a touchdown at the end of the opening quarter and finished with 149 yards - his best outing since Week 1 against the Packers. Boldin ended the regular season with 1,179 yards, the best season for a 49ers pass catcher since Terrell Owens had 1,300 yards in 2002.
But after the first quarter, the 49ers went cold.
Dawson missed a short field goal at the end of the half. A fourth-and-one attempt was thwarted in the third quarter. And the Cardinals top-ranked run defense held Frank Gore to just 14 yards on 13 attempts.
Last week against Atlanta, the 49ers defense twice allowed the Falcons to eat into 10-point second-half leads. The same scenario occurred in Arizona as quarterback Carson Palmer tied the game at 17 with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Andre Roberts and then Jay Feely tied it at 20 with a 43-yard field goal with 1:16 remaining.
That, however, only made Patton's catch all the more dramatic.
One drive earlier, Kaepernick had tried to hit Patton on a slant pattern on third down, but the rookie bobbled the pass. Patton also was nearly called for a personal foul penalty at a critical juncture in the fourth quarter but center Jonathan Goodwin, the senior member of the offense, yanked him out of the scrum.
It was Boldin who approached Patton on the sideline after his drop. "I went to him and told him, 'Keep your head up We're going to need you,'" Boldin said. "'So continue to play.' And sure enough we came back to him and he made a big play."
-- Matt Barrows