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COHN: Nice win, but hard to tell how good 49ers are

Colin Kaepernick eludes the grasp of Sam Acho in the third quarter. The San Francisco 49ers beat the Arizona Cardinals, 27-14, on Sunday, December, 30, 2012.

By JOHN BURGESS / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 8:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 8:51 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO

I admit to being confused by the San Francisco 49ers. They've played the entire regular season, and I'm still confused about how good they are. Go figure.

On Sunday, they defeated the Arizona Cardinals, a group of men who, in many respects, resemble an NFL team. So, we give credit to the 49ers for their victory and for other things, too.

By beating the Cardinals, the Niners won the NFC West for the second season in a row. That constitutes a big deal and it shows the Jim Harbaugh regime has brought the team to respectability and beyond. All praise to Harbaugh and his regime and the Niners.

By beating the Cardinals and because the Packers lost to the Vikings — you don't want to know those permutations — the Niners get a bye week and they play their first game at home in almost two weeks — Saturday, Jan. 12.

This is what you call Bonanza City because, as every footballer will tell you, at this time of year a team needs to — in the words of Steve Mariucci — “healthy up.” The Niners really need to healthy up.

There is the matter of Justin Smith and his injured elbow which isn't merely an injured elbow but involves a torn triceps and will involve corrective surgery at a time and place to be determined. The hope is — Patrick Willis expressed it for everyone — that Smith, whom Willis called a “marquee player,” is sufficiently healthied up to play in two weeks even without the surgery.

Here's a fact. The 49ers will need Justin Smith in two weeks. Trust me.

The hope is Vernon Davis will healthy up, too, after missing some practice days with a concussion. He caught one measly pass against the measly Cardinals. Against a real football team, he'll have to do better, even though Michael Crabtree went absolutely bonkers against Arizona catching eight passes for 172 yards. They used to say Crabtree was a prima donna. No prima donna this guy and no crabapple, either. He's the Real McCoy.

But there are some not-so-good things which happened against the Cardinals, an almost-NFL team. These not-so-good things confuse me and restrain me from shouting from the housetops the Niners are the tops.

Here are some not-so-good things:

The 49ers scored only seven points in the first half when the game, which eventually turned into a not-game, still was a game. It was fairly typical of the Niners going to back to when Alex Smith was the starting quarterback. Do you remember?

Against the Cardinals, not really an NFL team, scoring seven in the first half didn't matter. In a one-and-done playoff game against an actual team, a sleepwalker first half orchestrated by Greg “Mr. Conservative” Roman could be lethal in a self-destructive sense.

Crabtree was great against Cardinals' cornerback Patrick Peterson. But you would have to assume Crabtree will face a living, breathing cornerback in the next game, not some poor fellow who was carted into the stadium DOA. And the Niners have no other wide receiver at Crabtree's level, not Randy Moss and certainly not A.J. Jenkins who never has caught a pass in the NFL.

Kicker David Akers missed two easy field goals — missing is what he does. Watching him you wanted to smack yourself in the head and one assumes Harbaugh wanted to smack Akers in the head — in a metaphorical sense, only.

Afterward, Harbaugh, who never runs down a player publicly although he's been known to do damage privately, couldn't exactly praise Akers. “We'll evaluate the position,” Harbaugh said grimly. “It's his job to make field goals. It's not to his standard.”

Hardly what you'd call an endorsement. One hopes Akers has invested well in his 401(k). One hopes the Niners find a viable kicker in the next two weeks.

A few paragraphs ago, we went through the possibility of Justin Smith coming back, the buckeroo that he is. What if he's not back? Or what if he's not back 100 percent? The Niners would have a problem, actually two problems. They will not rush the passer as well and they won't defend the run as well. What I know right now is Smith is a big question mark.

Then there's the Niners' own running game. The 49ers are a better running team than a passing team. Their runs set up their passes. Well, they used to be a better run team than they are now. Frank Gore is wearing out — the bye may help him. Against the Cardinals, such as they are, he averaged 3.4 yards a carry, which is no average at all.

LaMichael James adds something to the running game — cleverness and elusiveness — but he is football shrimp, not a focal point for the offense. If the Niners cannot run in the playoffs, they might get run out of the playoffs.

And, finally, think about this. Whomever the 49ers play in their first game will not be the Arizona Cardinals. That is not to the Niners' advantage. The Cardinals, in a sense a football team, had prepped for Sunday's showdown by losing 10 of 11 — the last time the Niners played an actual football team, the Seahawks, they got demolished 42-13.

By the time the Cardinals arrived at Candlestick, they had turned off the electricity in their condos and phoned the Bekins man and packed their worldly goods in boxes. The Cardinals played reasonably hard, but most of their players, I imagine, didn't get deeply involved for fear of getting hurt in a useless effort and jeopardizing future employment and riches.

The Niners' next opponent will not have lost 10 of 11 and almost certainly will have electricity and motivation.

So, I praise the Niners for their win and their bye, and I leave this game scratching my head.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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