49ers' NFC title game loss boiled down to three plays

49ers' NFC title game loss boiled down to three plays
January 21, 2014, 9:30 am
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Jermaine Kearse's 35-yard touchdown reception with 13:44 remaining gave Seattle a 20-17 lead. (USATI)

Programming note: Watch Jim Harbaugh's end of the season press conference Tuesday at noon on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area or streaming live right here.

The 49ers on Sunday had 55 snaps on offense, 62 on defense and 24 plays on special teams.

We’ll focus on three plays – one in each phase – that contributed mightily to the 49ers’ 23-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.

Special teams
Late in the third quarter, the 49ers held a 17-13 lead. On fourth and 10 from the 49ers’ 20-yard line, Andy Lee came on to punt. After getting the kick away, Seattle’s Chris Maragos coming off the right side attempting to block Lee’s punt.

Referee Gene Steratore called it “running into the kicker” – a 5-yard penalty and no automatic first down. Former NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira on the FOX broadcast said Steratore blew the call because Maragos hit the plant leg of Lee, whose left ankle rolled under Maragos. It should have warranted a 15-yard penalty for "roughing the kicker."

Instead of retaining possession with a first and 10 from their own 35, the 49ers’ defense took the field with Seattle’s ball on their own 38.

With the field position attained after Lee’s punt, the Seahawks moved to the 49ers’ 35 and were faced with a fourth-and-7 play. Kicker Steven Hauschka did not willingly go onto the field to attempt a 53-yard field goal, and the Seahawks called a timeout. Coach Pete Carroll opted to go for it.

The 49ers lined up in a four-man front, with Aldon Smith over right guard. Smith moved offside just before the snap of the ball. Then, he quit on the play. Ray McDonald looked back, as if he expected the play to be whistled dead, too. Neither of the ends, Ahmad Brooks or Justin Smith, appeared to be exerting much effort, either.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was in the shot-gun formation and dropped five steps from there. Knowing he had a free play, Wilson made the throw on a deep post.

Actually, Doug Baldwin had beaten Eric Reid and Donte Whitner by a couple steps. Cornerback Carlos Rogers was running stride for stride with Jermaine Kearse. But it was Kearse who made the catch against Rogers’ tight coverage for the touchdown. The play gave Seattle a 20-17 lead -- its first lead of the game -- with 13:44 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Down by six points, the 49ers had the ball on the 18-yard line with 30 seconds remaining. They had two timeouts, so the clock was not an issue at this point.

Quinton Patton, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis were lined up on the left side. Michael Crabtree was wide to the right, matched in single coverage against Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick said after the game he made the decision where to go with the ball as soon as he saw Crabtree in a one-on-one situation. Thus, Kaepernick never looked to the left side.

Patton was stationed 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage against the left sideline with about 10 yards of cushion from the nearest defender as Kaepernick set to throw to the other side. A quick pass to Patton probably would’ve gained no more than 7 yards and taken seven or eight seconds.

Kaepernick threw to Crabtree, who could not shake Sherman with a double-move to the outside.

Crabtree appeared to give Sherman a subtle push in the back as the ball arrived. But Sherman made a remarkable play to leap in the air – stretching his 6-foot-3 frame and 32-inch sleeve – to deflect the ball with his left hand.

Linebacker Malcolm Smith, who was trailing the play, made the interception in the end zone with 22 seconds remaining. And the 49ers' season came to a crushing conclusion for the third consecutive season.

There's the obvious question of whether Kaepernick should be deciding pre-snap where to throw the ball. But I also believe Kaepernick made the correct decision. He had to throw to a spot before he could tell if the double-move was successful. So there had to be some trust there.

It was a great play by Sherman. And if there's second-guessing on the play, it's more with the execution than the decision. I agree with what Kaepernick said afterward: “I could have put it a little deeper in the corner, and gave only Crab a chance.”