The 49ers team we hoped we would see this season showed up last night — a week later than anticipated. What…A…Game. The funnest, although maddening, game I’ve seen the team play in a long, long time.
With a national audience tuned in expecting a rout and an implosion of the Mike Singletary led Niners, the team took the field and promptly fed the disaster watch, digging themselves into a 9-0 hole only a few minutes into the game, thanks in part to one of the ugliest looking shotgun snaps you’d ever want to see from a center in your life. The hike by David Baas shot up into the air like it had hit an upblast from a geyser and sailed so far over the head of Alex Smith it looked like a pooch punt.
Then a strange thing happened. The 49ers did not implode. They settled down and resolutely played some serious, in-your-face football. The defense shut out the Saints until well into the third quarter, as the offense marched up and down the field, shooting itself in the foot time after time, but gamely marching on anyway. Given every chance in the world to collapse, they did not, eventually taking a 14-9 lead late in the third quarter, rallying to tie the game 22-22 in the final two minutes, and then watching yet another tipped ball, fittingly, go through the uprights on the last play of the game for a heart breaking loss.
Dame Fortune is not yet smiling on the 49ers this year. In Monday night’s game, every tip of the ball went straight to the Saints or over the crossbar. Even when a Drew Brees pass was tipped, it came straight back to him for a five yard gain. These things always even out, don’t they? Surely they will, won’t they?
This game was Jimmy Raye’s finest hour. With the hangman’s noose firmly around his neck and the media painting him out to be a doddering doofus, he dialed up an offensive game plan that was balanced and powerful, rolling up 417 yards, a full 130 more than the vaunted Saints offense. The running game worked! The running game worked! Amazing what can happen when you can run the ball and protect the QB. The Niners did both on Monday, something not seen around here in many a day. The O-line, in perhaps the most significant performance of the game, gave up zero sacks and opened holes for Frank Gore all night long.
And it was also Smith’s finest hour. He was accurate, poised, in charge, and up to the task. With two minutes left and needing both a score and a two point conversion, he drove the team the length of the field and delivered. It was the most necessary drive of his 49er career.
If this is the offense and defense we will continue to see this year, the team should have no trouble winning the NFC West. More to the point, this team showed it has all the ingredients necessary for becoming a true, even elite, contender. And neither Michael Crabtree nor Brian Westbrook have yet to make an impact.
But the 49ers did lose the game and are now in an 0-2 hole. One game behind Seattle and Arizona is not daunting. But the margin for error is used up. They cannot afford to go to Atlanta in an 0-3 hole. The next game is critical. It is a short week, on raw emotions, and the team will be playing once again in a super loud stadium against a team that is 2-0 and feeling good about themselves.
It’s not a gimme, but they are the better team and now have to prove it with a win. Here’s a tip, guys: Cease and Desist With the Effing Turnovers!