49ers win NFC West with 27-13 victory over Arizona
- Article by: JANIE McCAULEY
- Associated Press
- December 31, 2012 - 3:51 AM
SAN FRANCISCO - His new red NFC West champion hat on backward, Donte Whitner stayed put at his locker with eyes glued to the Packers-Vikings game on the television above him — the matchup that would determine San Francisco's playoff positioning.
The safety rooted for Minnesota's Adrian Peterson with multiple chants of, "Break a long one, AP!"
The scene was the same around the 49ers' cramped locker room after their 27-13 win against Arizona on Sunday — and everybody cheered when Blair Walsh's 29-yard field goal sailed through the uprights for the Vikings as time expired to give San Francisco a first-round playoff bye.
The 49ers had to wait all of about 15 minutes once their game ended to really start celebrating.
Albeit briefly, considering Jim Harbaugh is their coach. He will get this group back to work in a hurry to prepare for the NFC divisional playoffs at home the night of Jan. 12.
Yet on this day, Harbaugh offered plenty of praise for the offensive tandem of Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree.
"I thought Michael and Colin really got us going," he said. "That was a great spark those guys gave us."
Crabtree's career day and dazzling catch-making display sent San Francisco to a second straight division title and into the playoffs with some much-needed momentum.
Crabtree caught touchdown passes of 49 and 7 yards and finished with a career-high 172 yards on eight receptions, leading the 49ers to another rout of Arizona after a slow start.
Kaepernick threw for a career-best 276 yards and two TDs as the Niners (11-4-1) did their part to control their postseason fate — then waited all of about 15 minutes to watch Minnesota beat Green Bay and give San Francisco the NFC's No. 2 seed and a week off before hosting a divisional playoff game.
"It means a lot," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "I was just telling some of the guys that it's something we don't take for granted. I don't."
Frank Gore ran for a 2-yard score early in the fourth quarter for his franchise-best 51st touchdown rushing, breaking a tie with mentor Roger Craig and late Hall of Famer Joe Perry.
With yet another new face under center, the Cardinals (5-11) lost for the 11th time in their last 12 games in what might have been Ken Whisenhunt's final game as coach. Brian Hoyer went 19 of 34 for 225 yards and a late TD toss in his first NFL start as Arizona's fourth quarterback this season.
He couldn't keep up with Crabtree and Kaepernick.
Crabtree's outstanding outing was the best by a 49ers receiver since Terrell Owens' 166-yard performance on Nov. 25, 2002, against Philadelphia.
"My dude made it happen," Crabtree said, looking at Kaepernick. "I'm really focused on these playoffs."
Crabtree caught a 31-yard pass to set up his team-leading eighth TD reception on the next play. The sequence put him over 1,000 yards, giving San Francisco its first 1,000-yard receiver since T.O. in 2003.
On the next series, Crabtree made a pretty, one-handed grab with his right hand along the left sideline on third-and-11 for a 19-yard gain and first down. He made a 14-yard catch on fourth down late in the third, and later converted another fourth down with a reception of 7 yards.
What a boost for an injury-depleted receiving corps missing Mario Manningham for the rest of the season because of a knee injury. Plus, tight end Vernon Davis was limited a week after sustaining a concussion.
Struggling San Francisco kicker David Akers missed wide left on a 44-yard field goal attempt midway through the second quarter, then did it again with nearly the same kick — from 40 yards this time — 24 seconds before halftime. Akers put his hands on his knees and closed his eyes in frustration as boos rained down from the sellout crowd at Candlestick Park.
He missed for the fourth time in his last eight spanning three games and 13th time in 40 tries after setting an NFL single-season record with 44 field goals in 52 attempts last year. Akers bounced back by nailing one from 43 yards early in the second half but was later clipped in his kicking foot by Arizona's Justin Bethel. Akers stayed in the game, then booted a 26-yard field goal with just more than 9 minutes remaining.
Coach Jim Harbaugh didn't rule out a change.
"We'll evaluate that," he said. "It's his job to make the kicks."
Hoyer exhibited poise in the early moments. He completed seven of his first 13 passes and three straight — for 7, 15 and 12 yards — during one drive as Arizona took a 3-0 lead on Jay Feely's 35-yard field goal late in the first quarter. Feely added a 31-yarder early in the second to make it 6-0.
The Cardinals outgained the 49ers 129-15 in the opening quarter and held San Francisco without a first down.
But that didn't last long.
Arizona ended a six-game stretch without a touchdown pass when Hoyer hit Michael Floyd on a late 37-yard score. Floyd had eight catches for 166 yards.
The Cardinals pounded the ball toward the right side of San Francisco's defensive line where Pro Bowler Justin Smith had been stout against the run all season before getting hurt two weeks ago. Now, San Francisco has an extra week for Smith to heal.
"Today's game kind of mirrored our season," Whisenhunt said. "I'm proud of the way our team's worked. You understand this is part of the business. We haven't won enough games this year."
Former starting quarterback Alex Smith made what could have been his final appearance in a 49ers uniform when he entered the game with 5:57 to go — playing to chants of "Let's Go, Alex!" and "Alex! Alex!"
"It was humbling," Smith said. "It was very surreal."
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