The 49ers are still headed to the playoffs. Sunday’s collapse in the desert can’t wipe that out.
But in a season where the Niners have been so golden, the 21-19 setback at the hands of the Cardinals appeared to be an Arizona anomaly.
Wrote columnist Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News: “In this game, when they only needed to be OK, the 49ers gave their worst effort – by far – of the 2011 season. A week after clinching the NFC West, the 49ers looked slow and they had no passion or rhythm. After playing so many games so fiercely this year, the 49ers relaxed Sunday at a very bad time for it.”
San Francisco and the New Orleans Saints are now both 10-3 in the battle for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and a first-round bye. But, as Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group reported, the 49ers have the tiebreaker edge (so far) based on an 8-2 conference record compared to the Saints’ 6-3 record.
Still, as the 49ers prepare to host the Pittsburgh Steelers on “Monday Night Football” on Dec. 19, there is some cause for concern.
Did the 49ers clinch too soon and lose their edge? Have they peaked? Are their troubles scoring touchdowns from the red zone a symptom of a bigger problem?
“We’ll look forward to seeing how our team responds to some adversity,” head coach Jim Harbaugh told Kawakami. “We haven’t had a lot of that this year.”
Against the Cardinals, the 49ers didn’t look anything like the team that had built a 10-2 record – its only losses coming to Dallas and Baltimore – while playing its best on the road and with its back to the wall. This time, its troubles in the red zone and its failure to stop backup quarterback John Skelton from leading his team back from a 12-point deficit were troubling.
Said tight end Vernon Davis: “I really don’t know how to describe this one.”
Added safety Dashon Goldson: “We left a little bit out there.”
San Francisco moved the ball inside the Cardinals’ 10-yard line three times in the first half, but settled for field goals each time. The Niners now have just three TDs on their last 19 trips into the red zone. The Niners know they need to correct that.
“It’s not something that I think we are just going to dismiss and move on,” quarterback Alex Smith told reporters, referring to Sunday’s problems. “We are into December now. We have to continue to get better. We can’t just dismiss this.”
Following the Monday night game against the Steelers, the 49ers will have just two games left: vs. the Seahawks in Seattle on Christmas Eve day and the finale at St. Louis vs. the Rams on Jan. 1.