By downing Steelers, 49ers proved worth among NFL's big boys
SAN FRANCISCO -- It's been a very long time since the 49ers were in an important, late-season Monday night game.
So long that apparently the 49ers forgot to check if the ancient stadium lights at Candlestick Park actually worked.
As if to illustrate to the world how badly outdated their stadium is, the 49ers primetime moment was marred by two power outages on Monday night -- both due to what was described as blown transformers. The first delayed kickoff by 20 minutes. The second, at the start of the second quarter, interrupted the game for about 17 minutes. The mishap was embarrassing for a team that has been waiting years to get back into the league spotlight.
But the 49ers shined brightly where it mattered, on the playing field, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-3.
And, turns out, the most broken thing in the building wasn't a transformer or a light standard. It was Ben Roethlisberger.
Virtually unable to move because of a high ankle sprain on his left foot, Roethlisberger accounted for four turnovers: three interceptions and a lost fumble. The Steelers couldn't overcome the ineffectiveness of their offensive leader and lost not only the game, but also the chance to become the top seed in the AFC. They fell to second place in the AFC North, behind Baltimore.
"When coach tried to get me out and I said, 'No I'm not going to put Charlie [Batch] in that situation. I'm not quitting on my guys," said Roethlisberger, who added that he didn't take any painkilling injections, just Advil and Tylenol. "I started this thing and I'm going to finish it."
Did Roethlisberger's stubbornness hurt his team? The Steelers were within two scores early in the fourth quarter, when -- unable to escape the rush -- he was sacked, fumbled and the 49ers recovered. Two minutes later the 49ers put the game out of reach with a Frank Gore touchdown run.
"At some point, if you can't play, you just can't play," said Steve Young, who was at his old home stadium as part of ESPN's Monday Night crew.
Before the game, Young and Jerry Rice -- both in their television suits -- threw the ball around on the field to the delight of the 49ers fans. It brought back memories of the old days when the 49ers were perennial playoff contenders.
But that was a long time ago. And though the 49ers clinched the NFC West title on Dec. 4 -- securing their first playoff berth in nine seasons -- there was still a sense that they needed to prove themselves. They still needed to beat a big boy team like the Steelers to truly be counted among the league's elite.
The 49ers had lost two out of their past three games, causing some to wonder if they had peaked too soon. Another loss would put them behind the red-hot New Orleans Saints in the battle for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
The 49ers struggled against the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving night. They flat-lined in a road loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Another loss might cause some internal doubts within a team that has mirrored its coach's confident style all season.
But the 49ers proved that -- while their stadium might be decrepit -- their game is state of the art. Riding their special teams and their stingy defense -- which set an NFL record by not allowing a rushing touchdown in the first 14 games --the 49ers kept the Steelers pinned and frustrated.
"We were moving the ball but we weren't finishing drives," Mike Tomlin said. "They have a reputation of creating turnovers and they confirmed it tonight."
But it is the game's third component -- offense -- that the 49ers have struggled with lately. Coming into Monday's game, the 49ers were second to last in red zone efficiency, ahead of only Kansas City. An invisible force field seemed to appear at the 20-yard line, able to be penetrated only by kicker David Akers' leg. Akers kicked two field goals in the first half, surpassing Jerry Rice as the 49ers single-season leader in points scored.
But field goals don't cut it in December and January. Which is why it was critical for the 49ers to figure out a way to score touchdowns.
In the third quarter, after Pittsburgh cut their lead to 6-3, Alex Smith led his team on a 79-yard drive, completing pass plays of 31, 9, 27 and 21 yards against the league's top-ranked pass defense. That final pass to Vernon Davis put the 49ers on the Pittsburgh 1 yard line -- a red zone position that they haven't been able to overcome in recent weeks.
Instead of being thwarted, Smith play-faked to fullback Anthony Dixon and rolled left to find Davis uncovered and alone in the end zone. It was the kind of drive against a playoff team that Smith's critics have said he hasn't been able to execute. But he did it on Monday.
"It was probably the biggest game, home game, since I've been here," Smith said.
Smith finished the game 18-of-31 for 187 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. More importantly, his offensive line didn't allow a sack.
"It was a tremendous job by Alex Smith," Jim Harbaugh said. "He was on the money all night long. There's no doubt in my mind that he deserves to go to the Pro Bowl. He's had that kind of season. He put an exclamation point on that tonight. "
Harbaugh has done a phenomenal job of keeping his team prepared and loose. They didn't wilt on Monday night. They weren't rattled by the Steelers or by the power outage and game delay.
What was it like in the locker room before the game?
"It was dark," Harbaugh said to much laughter.
But on Monday night, the 49ers stepped out of the shadows.
"This one," said Vernon Davis, "was big."