Rewind: 49ers just 'an inch or two' away from Super Bowl

Rewind: 49ers just 'an inch or two' away from Super Bowl
January 20, 2014, 10:00 am
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Kaepernick rushed for 130 yards on 11 attempts, including a 58-yard scamper in the second quarter that set up the 49ers’ first touchdown. (AP IMAGES)

“If that goes by an inch or two, Crabtree catches it for a touchdown and we win.”

-49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh on result of NFC Championship game

What you need to know: Colin Kaepernick dazzled with his running ability.

But he provided more evidence to those who view him merely as a “one read” passer.

Kaepernick committed three turnovers – two interceptions and one lost fumble – in the final 10 minutes of the 49ers’ 23-17 loss to their heated rival, the Seattle Seahawks, in the NFC Championship game on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

[RELATED: 49ers' season ends with another failed pass to Crabtree]

Kaepernick decided prior to even taking the snap from center Jonathan Goodwin that he was going to throw to receiver Michael Crabtree, who lined up wide to the right against the single coverage of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.

“I was going there,” Kaepernick said.

He explained: “I had a one-on-one matchup with Crab. I’ll take that every time against anyone.”

Crabtree ran a double move against Sherman. Crabtree created some separation, but Sherman used every bit of his 6-foot-3-inch frame and 32-inch arms to leap and swat the ball away with his left hand.

Linebacker Malcolm Smith, who was trailing the play, made the interception in the end zone with 22 seconds remaining to clinch the victory and send the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII, where they will meet the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Feb. 2.

“If that goes by an inch or two, Crabtree catches it for a touchdown and we win,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “But Richard Sherman made a terrific play, make a great play, athletic play batting the ball, getting a hand on it and deflecting the pass. That’s what I saw.”

[RELATED: Sherman takes aim at Crabtree, Kaepernick in postgame comments]

Harbaugh, who became the first coach in NFL history to advance to the conference championship in each of his first three seasons, also saw another season end in heartbreak.

Two years ago, Kyle Williams committed two turnovers on punt returns, and the 49ers lost in overtime to the New York Giants at Candlestick Park. Last season, the 49ers had three shots from the 5-yard line in the closing minutes before losing to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-31, in Super Bowl XLVII.

“Not many people get to be in this arena,” Harbaugh said. “(I’m) proud of the guys for fight that they showed (Sunday) and this season.”

And, again, the end came with Kaepernick targeting Crabtree in the right side of the end zone. Kaepernick overthrew Crabtree on a fade pattern in the Super Bowl. He underthrew him by the slimmest of margins on Sunday.

“I could have put it a little deeper in the corner, and gave only Crab a chance,” Kaepernick said.

In 19 games, Kaepernick threw only 11 interceptions. Five of them came in his two games at CenturyLink Field against the Seahawks.

[Instant Replay: 49ers quest ends with loss to Seahawks]

He completed 14 of 24 passes for 153 yards with one touchdown – a perfectly thrown 26-yard strike to Anquan Boldin to break a 10-10 tie in the middle of the third quarter.

Kaepernick also put on display is nonpareil running ability. He rushed for 130 yards on 11 attempts, including a 58-yard scamper in the second quarter that set up the 49ers’ first touchdown of the game.

That was it for the 49ers’ ground game. Frank Gore was held to 14 yards on 11 rushing attempts, as the running backs – Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon – combined for 31 yards on 17 carries.

“I think they did a good job of realizing that we were in man and running us all out and it opened up for him,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “In the second half, we played a little bit more zone, and it helped.”

[RELATED: Seahawks shut down Gore and Davis]

Bowman, Iupati injuries: The season ended for inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman and left guard Mike Iupati earlier in the game due to significant injuries. Preliminary exams revealed that Bowman sustained a torn ACL in his left knee in the fourth quarter, while Iupati suffered a fractured left ankle in the second quarter.

“It’s tough any time you lose somebody like that, but injuries happen,” Boldin said. “It’s part of the game. You just continue to play.”

The 49ers can only hope that Bowman, a first-team All-Pro selection and a leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, will be available when the 49ers open the regular season in September. He had 14 tackles and a sack in Sunday's game.

[RELATED: Bowman, Iupati injured in 49ers loss]

Wilson comes on strong: While Kaepernick ended his day with a turnover, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson got his miscue out of the way early and played error-free for the remainder of the game.

On the Seahawks’ first snap, Wilson did not fool 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith with a bootleg to the left. Smith stripped the ball from Wilson and recovered at the Seahawks’ 15-yard line. Four plays later, Phil Dawson kicked a 25-yard field goal to give the 49ers an early 3-0 lead.

“It’s not a disaster,” Wilson said. “The game’s not over, yet. First play of the game he made a good play. I was trying to flip it and he got my forearm just right at the right time, which he made a great play on.”

Wilson completed 16 of 25 pass attempts for 215 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a passer rating of 104.6.

Fourth-down magic: Two plays into the fourth quarter, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll passed up a potential 53-yard field goal that would’ve drawn the Seahawks to within one point.

On a fourth-and-7 from the 49ers’ 35, Wilson got a free play when Aldon Smith jumped offside. Smith halted his rush, which enabled Wilson plenty of time in the pocket. He then unloaded a deep pass for slot receiver Jermaine Kearse against Carlos Rogers, who was running stride-for-stride toward the post.

Wilson delivered the perfect throw, and Kearse made the catch against Rogers’ outstretched arm to give the Seahawks a 20-17 lead.

[RELATED: 49ers struggle to reach full potential]

“It was beyond what (Seahawks kicker Steven) Hauschka had done in pregame, and we said, ‘OK, let’s not force that issue in hopes of him kicking a good ball right there,’” Carroll said. “(We) had a great call and an incredible play by Russell and the protection that set it up, and Kearse comes through with an heroic touchdown pass to put us ahead there.”

Missed call not costly: Referee Gene Steratore’s crew made what could’ve been a colossal fourth-quarter mistake in failing to rule that Bowman recovered Kearse’s fumble at the 49ers’ 1-yard line on the play in which Bowman sustained his knee injury.

Replays clearly showed that Bowman stripped Kearse, had the ball in his possession and went to the ground while still in control. The ball should’ve been dead at that point. But after a scrum, Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch emerged with the ball. Harbaugh wanted to challenge the play, but Steratore told him correctly that the play was non-reviewable.

“Just a loophole in the rule,” Harbaugh said. “Once they rule it a fumble, it’s in the field of play and the ball is ruled recovered by the Seahawks and it can't be challenged by me. So I asked them what happens if I do challenge it, and he said that you’ll lose a timeout and we won’t review it. They said they would not review the play.”

[RELATED: Another rule for an NFL rulebook already gone mad?]

The play did not cost the 49ers anything, however. Wilson fumbled the handoff on a fourth-and-goal play and the ball was eventually recovered at the 15-yard line with the 49ers taking over on the change of possessions.

But two plays later, safety Kam Chancellor intercepted Kaepernick along the left sideline to set up Hauschka's 47-yard field goal to give the Seahawks a six-point lead.

Clock management: Trailing by six points with 3:32 remaining, the 49ers had three timeouts remaining. After the two-minute warning, the 49ers went into a no-huddle approach.

On one play, Crabtree caught a pass at the sideline and turned it back inside for extra yards rather than going out of bounds. The 49ers used their first timeout after that play.

On Kaepernick’s final interception from the 18-yard line, the 49ers still had two timeouts. There were 30 seconds remaining at the time of their 49ers’ final snap on offense.

“I thought time management was good,” Harbaugh said. “I thought we were in a good position with the timeouts that we had, so that was the decision.”

Said Boldin, “For us, we were in a rhythm. On the last drive, we had enough time. We were in great position. We were in the red zone with two timeouts left, 40-some seconds. I think we were in good position.”

Quick hitters
--Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio ended the season with as much emotion as he has ever felt, he said.

“It hurts every year you come close and don’t make it, but particularly with this group of guys,” Fangio said. “I went around to all these guys and told them, ‘Great year, and I love them.’ I kissed most of them. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. It’s a really special group of guys.”

--The 49ers did a good job for most of the game against Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch. However, Lynch tore off a 40-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to pull the Seahawks even at 10-10.

“He was able to catch us over-pursuing,” 49ers nose tackle Glenn Dorsey said.

Lynch finished the game with 109 yards on 22 attempts. It was the only time the 49ers allowed a 100-yard rusher this season. Lynch is responsible for four of the last six times an opponent has rushed for more than 100 yards against San Francisco

--Sherman, who played for Harbaugh at Stanford, was simply classless in victory. After Smith’s interception clinched the Seattle victory, Sherman made the “choke” gesture at Kaepernick.

“I’m the best corner in the game,” Sherman shouted during his postgame interview with FOX’s Erin Andrews, “when you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get.”

--The 49ers took a 10-0 lead on Dixon’s 1-yard touchdown leap over the pile in the second quarter. Originally, he was ruled to have scored on the previous play. But Steratore overturned the play upon review. Harbaugh decided to go for it on fourth down from just inside the 1-yard line and the 49ers ran the same play. However, the play proved costly as Iupati sustained a fractured ankle.

--Former 49ers practice-squad receiver Ricardo Lockette visited with former teammates outside the locker room. As a gunner on punt coverage, Lockette briefly knocked LaMichael James from the game with a neck injury. James muffed a punt, and Lockette delivered a big it. As both men were falling to the ground, Lockette grabbed ahold of James facemask and ripped off his helmet. No penalty was called on the play.

Quote of the day: ”I didn’t play good enough to win. I turned the ball over three times. I cost us this game.”
--49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick

Looking ahead: As is the case with every offseason, now the 49ers have some decisions to make. The league’s collective bargaining agreement allows for the 49ers to negotiate a new contract with Kaepernick. The sides will undoubtedly sit down to see if they can arrive at a long-term solution.

The 49ers have not had to account for the usual big salary from their quarterback. Kaepernick cost the 49ers just $1.397 million on the cap this season and is scheduled to account for $1.63 million in 2014.

Boldin is scheduled to be a free agent, along with safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Tarell Brown. Center Jonathan Goodwin, who is contemplating retirement, does not figure to return next season.

The 49ers assuredly will not play cornerback Carlos Rogers his $6.5 million pay for next season, which means either he takes a dramatic pay cut or he will be released in the offseason. And the 49ers also have a difficult decision to make with running back Frank Gore, who is scheduled to earn $6.45 million next season in base salary, roster bonus and workout bonus.

“Hopefully, the key guys on the team will come back and we’ll move on from here,” Gore said.

Said Kaepernick, “That’s always going to be our mindset. We play to get to the Super Bowl and win.”