Rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton took over Mario Manningham’s role in the 49ers’ offense Sunday and made a Manningham-like play along the sideline in the critical closing moments.
With 18 seconds remaining and the game seemingly headed to overtime, quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked to his right and saw the Cardinals had one-on-one, press coverage with Patton. Entering the game, Patton’s stat line consisted of one catch for zero yards, and he only recently took over the No. 3 receiver duties from Manningham, who is best known for his critical sideline grab for the New York Giants in the 2012 Super Bowl and who went on injured reserve Friday.
But Kaepernick said he had confidence the brash, energetic rookie could beat his man off the line of scrimmage.
“He’s very aggressive, he’s very quick, and he’s shown that he can beat press coverage,” Kaepernick said of Patton. “The more he does that, the more he’ll get the ball.”
As Kaepernick’s pass descended 29 yards downfield, however, Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason actually had excellent position and seemed to have a good shot at an interception. But Patton, who was sandwiched between Cason and the sideline, leaped over the cornerback, snagged the ball and landed inbounds. The 49ers called their final timeout with two seconds remaining, setting up Phil Dawson’s 40-yard field goal as time expired that delivered a 23-20 win.
Patton had more than 2,500 receiving yards the last two seasons at Louisiana Tech, but he said he’d never made a catch like that before. His approach?
“Just jump and, ‘Hey, come on, Jesus, put the ball in my hands,’ ” he said.
Last week’s last-minute heroics by Tramaine Brock and NaVorro Bowman against the Falcons locked up a playoff berth for the 49ers (12-4). Sunday’s final-second drama meant they will go to Green Bay to take on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers next Sunday.
“We know where we’re headed,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “This (game) is only for the tough. We’ve known that for a while now. Our guys have been through some tough ballgames. We know it will be more of the same coming.”
For the second straight week, end-of-game euphoria masked concerns for San Francisco. The 49ers jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter as Kaepernick continually hit Anquan Boldin, who spent his first seven seasons with Arizona.
With Arizona’s top cornerback, Patrick Peterson, shadowing Michael Crabtree throughout the game, Kaepernick said the 49ers figured Boldin would be a difficult matchup for the Cardinals’ other cornerback, Jerraud Powers.
The 49ers were right.
Boldin caught the first two passes of the day for San Francisco, had 106 yards and a touchdown by the end of the opening quarter and finished with 149 yards, his best outing since Week 1 against the Packers. Boldin ended the regular season with 1,179 yards, the best season for a 49ers receiver since Terrell Owens had 1,300 yards in 2002.
But after the first quarter, the 49ers went cold.
Dawson missed a 24-yard field-goal attempt at the end of the half. Arizona (10-6) thwarted a fourth-and-1 attempt in the third quarter. And the Cardinals’ top-ranked run defense held Frank Gore to 14 yards on 13 carries.
Last week against Atlanta, the 49ers’ defense twice allowed the Falcons to eat into 10-point second-half leads. The same scenario occurred Sunday as the Cardinals tied it 17-17 on quarterback Carson Palmer’s 34-yard touchdown pass to Andre Roberts with 3:20 left, then 20-20 on Jay Feely’s 43-yard field goal with 29 seconds to play.
That, however, only made Patton’s catch all the more dramatic.
One drive earlier, Kaepernick tried to hit Patton on a slant pattern on third down, but the rookie bobbled the pass. Patton also was nearly called for a personal foul at a key juncture in the fourth quarter, but center Jonathan Goodwin, the senior member of the offense, yanked him out of a scrum.
Boldin approached Patton on the sideline after his drop.
“I went to him and told him, ‘Keep your head up. We’re going to need you,’ ” Boldin said. “ ‘So continue to play.’ And sure enough, we came back to him and he made a big play.”