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  • Randall Benton rbenton@sacbee.com Quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) has a 49ers receiver in sight on his way to a career-high 276 passing yards against Arizona.

  • Randall Benton rbenton@sacbee.com Patrick Willis of the 49ers takes down Cardinals tight end Jeff King (87) after a short gain. The 49ers held Arizona to 262 total yards in their 27-13 victory.

49ers win the West and earn a first-round bye in the process

Published: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013 - 2:49 pm

SAN FRANCISCO – The game had been over for 30 minutes Sunday, but no tape had been unwrapped from ankles and wrists, no eye black wiped from faces.

Instead, groups of 49ers players stood around the locker room intently watching the end of the Vikings-Packers game on flat-screen televisions above their lockers and rooting feverishly for the team in purple.

"He looks nervous," defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said of Minnesota rookie kicker Blair Walsh before he attempted a 29-yard kick at the end of regulation.

"Gimme that bye week!" left tackle Joe Staley called out as Walsh made contact.

The kick sailed through the uprights as time expired, sending the Vikings into the playoffs, triggering raucous celebration inside the 49ers' locker room and giving San Francisco the No. 2 playoff seed for the second season in a row.

That means the 49ers, 27-13 winners over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, will have a coveted week off before hosting a divisional game Saturday, Jan. 12, at 5 p.m.

It also means all but one team, the No. 1-seeded Atlanta Falcons, must go to Candlestick Park if they want to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

"I congratulate them for getting that done in maybe arguably the best division in football," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "And it gives you a chance to now go for the big championship. That's all you can ask for – one more game."

Sunday was a lesson in how quickly fortunes – and momentum – can change in the NFL.

At this point last week, the 49ers were reeling from a brutal loss to the Seattle Seahawks and wondering how they would carry on without defensive stalwart Justin Smith. That sense of unease continued into the first quarter against Arizona, as the 49ers were held to 15 yards and trailed the five-win Cardinals 6-0 early in the second.

A second quarter sparked by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, however, gave the 49ers back their groove.

The two connected four times for 97 yards in the period, including a 49-yard touchdown. Crabtree caught another touchdown pass in the third quarter and finished with a career-high 172 receiving yards to become the first 49er with more than 1,000 receiving yards in a season since Terrell Owens in 2003.

Crabtree's first touchdown gave San Francisco a 7-6 lead heading into halftime and a hint that the dark clouds surrounding the 49ers recently were lifting.

"It's tough when you're starting off pushed against your own end zone," said Kaepernick, who finished with a career-high 276 passing yards and a 114.6 passer rating. "You can't open up the playbook like you want to. So once we got off our own end zone, we were able to call some plays we thought we could take some shots with."

The blowout win gave the 49ers a head start on resting starters such as defensive end Ray McDonald, who has played virtually every snap in a season that has included two overtime games and a marathon in New England.

More important, it gives Smith another week to rest.

The 12-year veteran was the 49ers' most dominating player during their postseason run last year. This year, Smith is dealing with a partial tear of his left triceps tendon, but he said he'll be on the field for the playoffs. The injury is healing on its own, and every week Smith has to rest and rehabilitate increases his strength and lowers the risk of a complete tear.

"He was just talking about it," linebacker Patrick Willis said of Smith and the benefit of the bye. "He's feeling better, and the more time you have to rehab … the better off you'll be. Like I said, he's a big guy for us, a marquee guy. And we love having him out there with us. Hopefully, he'll be out there with us when it's time to play again."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matthew Barrows



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