NinersDigest's Craig Massei and AZRedReport's Brad Wilbricht go Behind Enemy Lines to take an inside…
Beat-up Niners regrouping into season finale
''No excuses or justifications,'' an overwhelmingly grim, tight-lipped and humbled Harbaugh said back at 49ers headquarters. ''Our team needs to bounce back.''
The only way the 49ers can secure a No. 2 playoff seed – and the first-round bye that comes with it – is a win against the Cardinals coupled with a Green Bay loss at Minnesota. If they lose and Seattle (10-5) wins at home against St. Louis, the Seahawks will steal the division and send San Francisco on the road for the first round.
Complicating matters even more, the 49ers enter the finale with their depth depleted.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham, bothered by a shoulder injury previously, limped out of the locker room Monday on crutches. He was scheduled to have an MRI exam on his left knee after he was tackled low by Leroy Hill and fumbled in the third quarter.
Tight end Vernon Davis must clear the league's NFL concussion protocol after getting knocked off his feet along the sideline by safety Kam Chancellor on a huge hit that looked legal but drew a penalty for thumping a defenseless receiver.
And defensive lineman Justin Smith's streak of 185 straight starts ended when he sat out with an elbow injury. Harbaugh remained mum on Smith's status, except for saying ''he has not undergone a procedure.'' Asked if Smith will need surgery at some point, Harbaugh would only say ''we'll see.''
San Francisco already had lost backup running back Kendall Hunter (lower leg), wide receiver and punt returner Kyle Williams (left knee) and defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs (right knee) to season-ending injuries since the end of November.
Defensive lineman Will Tukuafu added to Harbaugh's headaches when he hurt his back against the Seahawks and did not return, and backup linebacker Clark Haggans missed the game with a shoulder injury.
''I feel our team's leadership, I feel the intellect of the staff, I think the talent of the players, the work ethic of the players will pave the way,'' Harbaugh said.
There are still plenty of problems for the 49ers who are healthy.
Seattle's loud fans flustered quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the coaching staff from the start, forcing the 49ers to call two timeouts and get two delay-of-game penalties in the first half alone. Kaepernick completed 19 of 36 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown with one interception in the end zone.
What do the 49ers have to do offensively to avoid penalties and clock-management problems?
''Fix it,'' Harbaugh said.
''That's the only option we have,'' left tackle Joe Staley said. ''You learn from the film, you watch it and make the corrections. Our whole team didn't play well.''
Frank Gore was held to 28 yards on six carries after rushing for a season-high 131 in San Francisco's 13-6 win against Seattle in Week 7. The loss of Justin Smith seemed to affect the entire defense, and Russell Wilson's slipperiness in the pocket didn't help. Aldon Smith is still stuck on 19½ sacks after getting locked up by Seattle's Russell Okung.
Smith, no longer the NFL leader in sacks, went without a sack for the second consecutive game after having at least one sack in San Francisco's previous seven games.
Red Bryant also blocked David Akers' 21-yard field-goal attempt, Richard Sherman scooped up the ball and sprinted untouched for a 21-0 lead that put the game out of reach on just the third play of the second quarter.
''Rather than go position by position, or any one particular phase, I don't think anybody looks back on this and feels like it was good enough,'' said Harbaugh, handed a miserable loss on his 49th birthday by longtime rival and Seattle coach Pete Carroll.
If there's a bright side to San Francisco's setback, Harbaugh is 7-0 after a loss in his two-year tenure and competition will not be nearly as difficult as the last two weeks at Seattle and New England.
The 49ers routed the Cardinals 24-3 in the desert on a Monday night in late October, a game Alex Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns. Smith has since been replaced by Kaepernick, a high-risk, high-reward, dual-threat quarterback who is 4-2 as the starter.
While the 49ers also have looked dominant at times this season, they have yet to put together a winning streak of more than two games. Five times this season San Francisco has won two consecutive games, and five times they have failed to win the third game, including a 24-24 tie against St. Louis in Week 10.
To win the Super Bowl – or even just get there – the 49ers will have to change that.
''It was a punch in the face,'' cornerback Carlos Rogers said of the loss in Seattle. ''But the thing about it is we still have a chance to win the division and we're in the playoffs. It's a new season once the playoffs start.''
NOTES: The 49ers released LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis from the practice squad. He had been signed on Dec. 4.... Players are off Tuesday for Christmas.
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