The 49ers put the hurt on Rams QB Kellen Clemens
The 49ers put a big, pretty red-and-gold ribbon on their amazing 13-3 season with a vast display of the team they’ve become during their not-as-close-as-the-score 34-27 victory over the St. Louis Rams. “Thirteen-and-three sounds great to me,” TE Vernon Davis chimed in afterwards, and here’s a look at some great things happening after the Niners wrapped up their best season of the 21st century.
--- It all starts with Jim Harbaugh for the 2012 Niners, so Sunday’s list of honors begins at the top with San Francisco’s essential first-year coach. By turning the 49ers into instant winners after eight consecutive non-winning seasons, Harbaugh set a NFL record for most victories by a rookie head coach with a team coming off a losing season. San Francisco’s 13-3 finish, its best record since 1997, is a massive seven-game improvement over the team’s disappointing 6-10 finish last season that got Mike Singletary fired a week before it was over.
--- The great David Akers put an exclamation point on the best season ever by a NFL kicker with two more field goals and another 10 points to add to his record season totals. Akers finished with a NFL-record 44 field goals, a NFL-record 52 field-goal attempts and a NFL-high 166 points, a new NFL record for a kicker. And to top it off, Akers even threw the first touchdown pass of his career on a fake field-goal attempt, hitting a wide-open Michael Crabtree for a 14-yard score.
--- That play, which put the Niners ahead 27-10 late in the third quarter, was another example of the brilliance and innovation of San Francisco’s extraordinary special teams this year. Coordinator Brad Seely dialed up the slight-of-hand play, when Crabtree lingered near the San Francisco sideline and wasn’t spotted by a duped St. Louis defense, and Akers took a direct snap and sailed a left-handed spiral right into Crabtree’s hands. It wasn’t exactly Steve Young, but it was pretty sweet nonetheless.
--- Harbaugh and his staff have a deep bag of tricks that they rarely feel the need to reach into. But this one was just too good to pass up. “We've been practicing it for about 10 weeks," Harbaugh said of the play. "(Crabtree) was in the previous play. He just had to do everything within the rules. He was in on the previous play, he had to come back inside the numbers. When he goes to the sideline, he can't go off in a group of people. He's got to line up on the line of scrimmage, shoulders facing the defense. He just went out there and lined up, and they didn't see him." And it turned into seven quick points for the Niners instead of just the three points they’re accustomed to settling for once their offense reaches the red zone.
--- Crabtree continued to step up as the unquestioned No. 1 receiver he has become this season for the 49ers. With San Francisco’s receiver corps seriously hurting and depleted Sunday without the services of Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle injury), Kyle Williams (concussion) and Delanie Walker (jaw injury), Crabtree beat the Rams all day for season-high totals of nine receptions for 92 yards. He also had the first two-touchdown game of his three-year career, taking a short hitch pass from Alex Smith and breaking a tackle down the sideline to complete a 28-yard scoring play that gave the Niners their first lead in the second quarter.
--- Vernon Davis also answered the call with the capable Walker not there to complement him at tight end for the first time this season. Davis had season-high totals of eight receptions for 118 yards, including a season-best 44-yard reception. “I knew going into it, because all week it’s been me and Crabs, me and Crabs,” Davis said. “So I had an idea what the game would be like. I knew I would get a lot of opportunities to make plays, and I just took advantage of it.”
--- The 49ers finished a very pedestrian 29th in the NFL this season in passing offense, but Crabtree and Davis – a Pro Bowl alternate for the second consecutive year after being the NFC’s starter in 2009 – emerged as reliable targets in a conservative attack and both finished with respectable season totals. Crabtree led the Niners with career-high totals of 73 receptions for 880 yards while Davis had 67 catches for 792 yards. The pair combined for 10 of San Francisco’s 18 touchdown catches.
--- The Niners secured the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and will have a first-round bye for the first time since being the NFC’s No. 1 seed after their 13-3 finish in 1997. The Niners also tied the 2005 Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West’s best record since NFL realignment in 2002 brought the Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals into the division while pushing out the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. The Seahawks, by the way, went on to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl that year.
--- After Kellen Clemens slipped three tackle attempts to score St. Louis’ first touchdown on an 18-yard run, you had to almost be glad that Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch last week ended the Niners’ record streak of not allowing a rushing touchdown in the first 14 games of the season. Nobody would have wanted to see that streak ended by a backup quarterback juking three defenders on a scramble. The Rams had another rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter, leaving the 49ers with three allowed for the season, a NFL record since the league moved to a 16-game schedule.
--- What a way to cap a remarkable season for the astounding Andy Lee, who hit a 66-yard bomb among his five punts to finish with a 56.8-yard average and 51.4 net average in his season finale. That left Lee with a team-record 50.9 gross average for the season – the third-best figure in NFL history. Lee also set a new NFL season record with a net average of 43.99 yards, breaking the previous record of 43.85 set by Oakland’s Shane Lechler in 2009. Lee trailed Lechler’s previous record by 0.4 yards entering the game, but determinedly kicked his way past it.
--- As always, Lee helped the 49ers win the battle of field position, which resulted in the 49ers starting three of their 14 offensive possessions inside the Rams’ 35-yard line. The 49ers began 37 drives inside the 35-yard line of opponents this season, which led the NFL.
--- You just can’t fool the 49ers’ elite defense. The Rams tried to do so in the second quarter of a 7-7 game, but they failed miserably on a halfback throw-back pass to QB Clemens when Tarell Brown sniffed out the play for the first of his two interceptions, leading to the touchdown that put the 49ers ahead to stay. “We knew that they were going to come into the game trying to do trick plays just because we felt like they didn’t have anything to lose,” Brown said. “With their record (the Rams finished 2-14), those guys were definitely just trying to spoil our celebration. So we knew something was up. It wasn’t a great call. I was in Cover 2, so I just sat back and kind of read the guy and just jumped on the play.”
--- Brown’s two picks gave him a career-high four interceptions for the season and gave the 49ers 38 takeaways, another NFL high. San Francisco finished the season with a league-best plus-28 turnover differential, the second-best ratio for a season since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.
--- San Francisco’s offense and propensity for ball protection also shares the credit for that outstanding turnover ratio. The Niners did not commit a turnover Sunday for the fifth consecutive game, ending the season without a turnover for a team-record 22 quarters, also a NFL high this season. The 49ers finished the season with just 10 turnovers, tying the NFL record for fewest in a season set last year by the New England Patriots.
--- While the Niners tied their season-worst total by allowing 27 points to a team they had blanked 26-0 in San Francisco four weeks ago, they still gave plenty of glimpses of the dominant, aggressive defense they have become. Free safety Dashon Goldson put one of his monster hits on Steven Jackson – one of the biggest, baddest and hardest-running halfbacks in the NFL – that sent him into the locker room for X-rays in the third quarter and left him on the sideline to stay the remainder of the game. The Niners also knocked out Clemens with the Rams attempting to drive for a tying score in the final minutes, forcing St. Louis to resort to third-stringer Tom Brandstater, who was harassed into two incompletions to end the threat.
--- Rookie Kendall Hunter was able to carry the rushing load for the 49ers, allowing starter Frank Gore to rest up for the playoffs after some early work. Hunter had career-high totals of 16 carries for 76 yards, averaging 4.8 yards a pop, to finish the season with 473 yards rushing as a strong complement to the team’s three-time Pro Bowler. That was the most rushing yards by a 49ers backup running back since Gore’s rookie season of 2005, when Gore led the team with 608 yards rushing despite only starting one game behind Kevan Barlow.