By Sam McPherson
San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly and quarterback Colin Kaepernick demonstrated on Saturday that both deserve a chance with the team in 2017. Kelly prepared and motivated his mediocre roster for the big moments, while Kaepernick responded with an effort reminiscent of his best days with the team from 2012. The result of this dynamic duo’s effort was a 22-21 victory on the road against the Los Angeles Rams on Christmas Eve which broke a team-record 13-game losing streak and also gives the 49ers hope for next season and beyond.
The 49ers completed the season sweep of the Rams with a full team effort, as the defense turned in its best effort of the year despite being undermanned while the offense performed at a high level just in time to secure a fourth-quarter comeback win. San Francisco improved its record to 2-13 on the season, while Los Angeles dropped to 4-11 this year. Both teams have one game left on the schedule next Sunday.
At times, the 49ers offense wasn’t pretty. In fact, until gaining 148 yards on two scoring drives in the fourth quarter, San Francisco’s offense looked as bad as it has all season, gaining just 179 yards up until then. However, those two possessions in the fourth quarter resulted in the game-winning points and made everything that came before a distant memory. Kaepernick completed 28 of his 38 attempts for 266 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also ran for a TD and the game-winning two-point conversion.
Thus, Kaepernick accounted for 281 total yards, on a day when the team gained just 323 yards overall. Running back Carlos Hyde caught a TD pass, but he struggled to run with just 38 yards on 13 carries, and backup RB Shaun Draughn netted just 17 yards on 10 carries. This game was all about Kaepernick, really, and the one-time phenom came through in the clutch to help the 49ers win the game in spectacular fashion.
Holding the Rams to just 177 yards, the much-maligned San Francisco defense achieved its best statistical performance of the year. The 49ers had to stop the run, and other than one 30-yard scamper by L.A. wide receiver Tavon Austin in the first quarter, the S.F. defense did just that. Overall, the Rams gained just 99 yards on 29 carries in this game, despite facing the worst run defense in the league.
That meant the 49ers could pressure L.A. rookie QB Jared Goff, and the No. 1 overall pick in last spring’s draft looked terrible against the worst defense in the NFL. Goff was just 11-for-24 in this game, gaining a mere 90 yards. Also, when handed a golden chance to move his team into field-goal position late for a potential game-winning kick, Goff tossed his second interception of the day. That single play and the overall defensive effort from San Francisco was impressive, all things considered.
Special Teams: B
Giving up a 24-yard return on the final kickoff and letting the Rams offense start its final real drive from its own 42-yard line was bad, although it mostly was due to a celebration penalty on the game-winning two-point conversion. Still, the S.F. special teams needed to be better as the Rams averaged 32 yards on four kickoff returns. It could have cost the 49ers the game. In the end, though, placekicker Phil Dawson made the only two kicks he was asked to make, and San Francisco held Los Angeles to just 10 yards on punt returns.
This is what Kelly has been doing for a good part of the second half of the season: Taking his poorly stocked roster and getting it play hard every week, even if the results haven’t shown up on the scoreboard. Well, in this game, the results did show up. Going to the two-point conversion and the win was the right call, and the players responded to Kelly’s coaching with the victorious effort. Maybe the 49ers just have the Rams’ number, but even if so, Kelly has earned the right to return in 2017 with a better roster than the one he was forced to play with this season.
San Francisco hosts the Seattle Seahawks in the final regular season game of 2016 next Sunday, Jan. 1. The Seahawks lost on Saturday at home to the Arizona Cardinals, and now Seattle’s chances at the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs are small. That means perhaps the Seahawks rest some players in Week 17, and perhaps the 49ers can snag another win as a result. It will be an interesting week for the S.F. organization, now that the team earned a great road win to break out of its horrible slump.