By Sam McPherson
The San Francisco 49ers finally got some good luck on the road this season when the Chicago Bears missed a potential, game-winning field goal attempt at the end of regulation. The 49ers defense held onto the Bears’ first overtime possession, setting up quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s 71-yard touchdown toss to a wide-open Torrey Smith that won the game for San Francisco.
It was an overall team effort today, including special teams, that enabled the 49ers to finally win a road game in 2015. The team was competitive throughout the game, unlike past road contests where S.F. was buried by halftime. This was a big hurdle for 49ers Head Coach Jim Tomsula to overcome as he tries to show the front office he is the man to lead the team in 2016.
This is the only grade to give an offense that averages less than 14 points per game. Even if they needed overtime to get to 26 points, this was a monumental effort from Gabbert—who is showing he has the chops to be a full-time NFL starter next season. He threw for 196 yards and the game-winning TD, but Gabbert also scrambled for the 44-yard, game-tying TD with just 1:50 left in regulation. He was huge and instrumental in this win.
Smith, obviously, came through with the big TD to win the game on the receiving end, but Gabbert completed passes to eight different receivers overall. He had to, because the running game was basically stuffed: The 49ers running backs had 17 carries for just 46 yards. This was Gabbert’s win, period. He carried the S.F. offense.
The 49ers defense earned this one in terms of giving it everything they had, after being on the field for over 37 minutes of game time. The Bears ran for 170 yards, which normally would suggest a win for Chicago. However, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler decided not to show up today, barely passing for 200 yards and handing the 49ers a TD on a pick-six interception by Jimmie Ward.
It’s hard to look at the stat sheet and see how the 49ers won, in truth. Chicago was 8-for-17 on third downs and gained 364 total yards. The big difference came on two big plays: Ward’s TD return for a score and the Bears’ missed field-goal attempt at the end of regulation that should have won the game for Chicago. The 49ers defense then held in overtime when they needed to in order to give Gabbert the chance to win the game.
Special Teams: C
The 49ers did not have a good game on special teams. Kicker Phil Dawson missed the extra point after Ward’s TD, which ended up costing S.F. the potential win in regulation. Plus, the only reason the Bears had that chance at the end of regulation to win was because the 49ers kickoff coverage team gave up a 74-yard return after Gabbert’s game-tying TD. It’s incredible these two blunders didn’t cost San Francisco the win.
Much credit goes to Tomsula and his staff here for finally delivering a road win, when the team had been outscored by over 100 points in its five previous road losses this season. There was no halftime deficit here: It was tied at the end of each quarter throughout the game, showing the 49ers to be competitive throughout against a potential playoff team away from Levi’s Stadium. That’s exactly what Tomsula needed to do in order to give himself a chance at being retained for 2016. Yes, the 49ers were lucky on special teams in this one, but Gabbert did the job—and the defense held it together just enough to make the win possible.
San Francisco now has a great chance to string together two consecutive road wins as the squad heads to Cleveland next week. The Browns took it on the chin today against the Cincinnati Bengals, and they have only two wins this season. If the 49ers can carry this momentum over to next weekend in Ohio, it will be a great confidence boost for the team heading into the final weeks of the year—and a good building block for 2016.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.