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News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

January 22, 2014
Film review: Kaepernick's fateful, final decision; Gore's rough day; game's MVP

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OK, I've given you nearly three full days. It's time to come out from under the covers and read about what went wrong - and what went right - for the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. I watched both the game broadcast (a couple of times) and the All-22 film, so I can recite the contest from start to finish as if it were a poem. A tragic, Greek poem.

Let's start at the end, with the fateful and much scrutinized throw to Michael Crabtree. Both Seattle safeties were to Colin Kaepernick's left on the play. Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Quinton Patton all ran routes to that side of the field. Patton hung around in the flat as a safety valve. He was open, but a throw to him would have gained maybe three to five yards. Kendall Hunter, who had replaced Frank Gore for the final five plays, ran a short pass pattern that also would have resulted in a minimal gain.

All of this meant that Crabtree was lined up one-on-one with Richard Sherman to Kaepernick's right. Kaepernick saw this right away and acknowledged afterward that he had no doubt where he would throw the ball. The question is, was it the right read? Against any other team, the answer is, yes. If you have a top pass catcher like Crabtree in single coverage, you throw his way.

Sherman's remarks after the game - and obnoxious as the delivery was, they were worthwhile ones - essentially asked why the 49ers would stay away from him throughout the contest but try to attack him at the most critical moment? It was no fluke that the Seahawks had safety help on one side of the field and let Sherman alone on the other. They had done that all season, and Sherman had won the rare instances in which teams challenged him. He led the league with eight interceptions in the regular season.

Going after Sherman was at best an aggressive move and at worst an exercise in bad judgment. Being aggressive is what the 49ers - and most of the time, their fans - like about Kaepernick. It's what separates him from his predecessor, Alex Smith. He threw a daring pass to a trusted, but well covered receiver, Boldin, in the the third quarter that resulted in a touchdown. The ball went through safety Early Thomas' fingers into Boldin's hands. The bottom line when it comes to Kaepernick's final throw of the 2013 season is that he made a calculated and aggressive gamble against Sherman and he lost the bet.

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There's been a lot of hand wringing about Gore, who averaged just 1.3 yards a carry. On five of his 11 carries, he either was held for no gain or dropped for a loss. That's typical early in games. The difference is that Gore didn't break anything big later in the game like Marshawn Lynch - he averaged 2.8 yards a carry in the first half -- did for the Seahawks.

There were two factors.

One is that the Seahawks loaded the box from the opening snap and simply outplayed the 49ers' offensive line. Joe Staley normally is the 49ers' best offensive lineman - and he did have the best block on Anthony Dixon's touchdown plunge - but he was beaten early in the game. (In fairness, he suffered a grisly thumb contusion and missed only one snap). On the other side, Anthony Davis also had a rough outing. Gore simply was met by one or more Seahawks on the 49ers' side of the line of scrimmage far too often. Earl Campbell wouldn't have gotten loose.

The other issue is that Gore suffered a broken finger at some point in the game. He didn't have a single carry in the fourth quarter and was not on the field for the final five snaps. My guess is that the injury occurred on his longest run, a nine-yarder, early in the third quarter. He lost the ball after going down on the play, seemed to reach for his hand and then missed the next two snaps.

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The simple answer for why the 49ers lost is because they needed to play a largely error-free game and ended up making a lot of mistakes. Seattle this year led the league in penalties, but the Seahawks finished with just one more than the 49ers in the contest - Sherman's taunting call when the game was all but over providing the difference. The 49ers had seven penalties for 65 yards, including two personal-foul penalties.

That includes Donte Whitner's unnecessary roughness call in the opening quarter in which he left his feet to deliver a blow to the Seattle pass catcher. Whitner is a fierce hitter, and he's probably right in his season-long argument that officials are too eager to throw a flag when there's a big hit. But at some point he has to realize which way the NFL wind is blowing and avoid those penalties. He had five of the team's 12 unnecessary roughness calls in the regular season. By contrast, his counterpart, Eric Reid, didn't have a single penalty, not a facemask, not a holding call. Nothing.

The Seahawks' longest offensive play was a 51-yard pass from Russell Wilson to Doug Baldwin. It was a vintage Seahawks play in that Wilson had to scramble from pressure, created some room and then saw Baldwin streaking down the middle of the field. What had to be exasperating for the 49ers when they watched the play later is that they had it covered. Both Whitner and Reid were deep. But they seemed to be captivated with what was happening with Wilson 50 yards away and allowed Baldwin to tun right between them.

There were other mistakes, including on special teams. LaMichael James hadn't had a muffed punt since Nov. 25 but nearly had a colossal one early in the game that a teammate recovered. The 49ers also gave up three kickoffs for 109 yards, including a 69-yard return by Baldwin. In a tight, defensive game, those are the type of plays that prove to be the difference. On Baldwin's return, Phil Dawson's kick appeared to be low and the Seahawks blockers simply got a helmet on the 49ers, Darryl Morris and Dan Skuta, who were closest to making a play.

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To me, the player of the game was Seattle safety Kam Chancellor, who had one of the two interceptions of Kaepernick. Chancellor is the Seahawk who knocked Vernon Davis out of the game in Seattle in 2012. The 49ers are very aware of where he is. He thumped Davis again in Sunday's game, dislodging the ball in the process. He also caused Crabtree to alligator-arm a short pass on the 49ers' final drive. Readers with elephant-like memories will recall that Chancellor was a second-day draft crush of mine back in 2010. Instead, the 49ers took Taylor Mays. Let that sink in.

On the other side, I thought NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Glenn Dorsey stood out for the 49ers. The defensive player of the year award could come down to Bowman and Sherman. You don't want to hear who I think would get it ....

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From the shoulda-woulda department: On third down in the third quarter, Kaepernick did a marvelous job of escaping the Seattle defense and buying time as he ran to the right sideline. His last second throw to Gore or Boldin - both were in the vicinity - was too low and fell incomplete. If he had looked further downfield, he would have seen Patton streaking across the field from the other side with no safeties behind him.

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On the first play of the 49ers' final drive, James took the handoff, ran wide and seemed prepared to throw it back to Kaepernick. It's a good thing he didn't. Linebacker K.J. Wright sniffed out the trickery and didn't pursue the play like the 49ers had hoped.

It was a gutsy call at that point in the game, one that would have been legendary had it worked. The Seahawks probably were suspicious of why James got his only carry at that particularly point in the game and knew something fishy was afoot. You have to wonder that had Gore been given the ball whether the Seahawks' antennae would have been raised. Gore, of course, may have been dealing with a broken finger on his right, throwing, hand at that point. And that may have been why James got the call

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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