49ers enter postseason lacking momentum

Matt & Mindi: Bye allows 49ers to get healthy

49ers enter postseason lacking momentum
December 30, 2012, 5:30 pm
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UPDATE: (6:07 p.m.) The NFL has announced the 49ers will host their divisional round playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 12 at 5:00 PST. Their opponent is yet to be determined.


SAN FRANCISCO -- Candlestick Park disgorged its human contents slowly, which is the only way it ever does. Alex Smith had almost surely closed out his 49ers career with a kneel-down, David Akers remained a conundrum wrapped in an enigma encased in a kicking shoe, Justin Smith’s triceps tendon had not yet healed itself, and Jim Harbaugh was, well, Jim Harbaugh.

Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers flailed impotently against the tide that is Adrian Peterson, and here we must credit the 100 or so fans who stayed in the stadium to watch the scoreboard as it showed Blair Walsh’s game-winning field goal. The Vikings won 37-34, the 49ers got this weekend off, and host someone next week. They were thrilled with this development, as the locker room roar showed.

And yet the bye is a gift that is delivered with a mailed fist.

The 49ers need the week in hopes that J. Smith (as opposed to A.D. Smith) can make himself fully functional. And that Colin Kaepernick can advance his learning curve. And that David Akers can find the left foot he apparently left behind at the end of last season. Plus, who doesn’t want a break from running into other people repeatedly at great rates of speed?

On the other hand, teams with the bye win almost 54 percent of the time, making the 49ers a coin flip in the divisional round. An 11-4-1 coin flip.

And a coin flip with as many questions as answers. A coin flip without momentum, and as we surely know, December momentum more than any other commodity is what gets teams to the Super Bowl.

The 49ers didn’t get a lot of impetus from beating Arizona, 27-13. The Cardinals are awful as usual, one of the game’s enduring Jell-O punching bags. You hit it repeatedly, you feel good hitting it, but in the end it hasn’t given you the kind of test you need for the next steps.

But other than Michael Crabtree, who made a mockery of whatever passes for the Arizona secondary, no 49er offensive player excelled, and the defense was never challenged by a Cardinal team with no weapons whatsoever. It was a desultory performance made even less settling by Akers’ latest field goal misses, giving the 49ers the most worrisome kicking of the postseason combatants.

Indeed, of the teams already in, only Green Bay (Mason Crosby) has a poorer percentage of field goal conversion, but they made up for it by scoring more TDs than any other NFC team. And Crosby is only bad beyond 50 yards, whereas Akers’ issues are from 40 out.

In short, unless the 49ers want to concoct an injury to Akers out of his collision with Arizona’s Justin Bethel, they already have a disadvantage to go along with Smith’s questionable status, and the fact that they have only one go-to receiver, Crabtree.

They are not going into this postseason with the same gleeful trouble-free stride with which they entered last year’s playoffs. Momentum, remember?

Not only that, the two NFC teams with the bye, San Francisco and Atlanta, are the only ones with two losses in December. Seattle (No. 5) went unbeaten, Minnesota (No. 6) won its last four after losing at Green Bay in Week 12, and Green Bay (No. 3) had won four straight before losing Sunday.

None of this makes them unqualified for Super Bowl status, mind you. In this field, there is no team that doesn’t have that quality to them, because everyone either backed into the postseason or rallied frantically to get there.

But these are not the 49ers of yore, as in last year. Things are coming harder, and the margin for error creates a tighter squeeze. Without Smith, that margin becomes almost prosciutto-thin.

So yes, Blair Walsh did the 49ers a great service on Sunday, and so did Adrian Peterson. But the real truth is that the 49ers are going to have a harder time making an impression this time than they did a year ago, and the key is, as ever, Justin Smith. With him, they are in play. Without him, who knows?

But this much is sure. Last year, the 49ers were playing with the casino’s money all year long. This year is going to be a pure white-knuckler – starting now.