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Frustration and delight, agony and ecstasy as 49ers edge past Broncos

The San Francisco 49ers claimed their second victory of 2010 with a 24-16 win over the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium, thanks to a flurry of three touchdowns in eight fourth quarter minutes. Denver will feel somewhat hard done by, having had two scores chalked off by penalties, but it was the Niners who produced the big plays on both offense and defense when it really mattered.

The 49ers limped into this game with a 1-6 record and missing starting quarterback Alex Smith (out with a separated shoulder). Third-string passer Troy Smith was given his third career start (and his first as a 49er) over David Carr, who had performed poorly in last week’s bitterly disappointing loss to the Carolina Panthers.

This was the fourth International Series game to be held at Wembley. I have attended all four but, as a long-standing 49ers fan, this was the first time I have been there in a partisan rather than a neutral capacity. As with any sporting event, having a strong reason to root for one side makes for a completely different experience. Any sense of rational detachment goes out of the window, to be replaced by a maelstrom of passion and emotion.

The difference between being a neutral observer and a fan is like the old joke about bacon and eggs: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. Last night, I was the pig. So, rather than the usual reportage-style review, here is an entirely biased view of an evening of frustration and delight, agony and ecstasy, through the eyes of a 49ers fan.

Pre-game

In truth, the most exciting thing to happen before half-time was the ceremonial appearance of the legendary Jerry Rice and John Elway for the pre-game coin toss, which elicited a roar of approval from the 83,941 capacity crowd. It brought a lump to my throat, having grown up marvelling at the superhuman feats of the effortlessly graceful Rice.

Having arrived in London on Monday, San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary and his staff had plenty of time to devise a gameplan around the inexperienced but mobile Smith, who he had named as his Wembley starter earlier in the week.

Denver did not arrive until Friday morning, licking their wounds after a 59-14 shellacking by the Oakland Raiders. At 2-5, they were one game better off than the 49ers, but had lost three in a row despite a potent passing game led by quarterback Kyle Orton.

Pre-game entertainment consisted of My Chemical Romance (mehh), with Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams and guitarist Jeff Beck performing the national anthems – the former briefly exchanging the ballroom setting of Strictly Come Dancing for the gridiron.

In my pre-game preview, I had made the following prediction:

I expect Sunday’s game to be a close but nervy affair, especially at first as these two struggling teams try to build confidence and momentum. The loss of Alex Smith is a big blow […] the 49ers will probably try to control the ball with Gore on the ground – where the Broncos are weakest – rather than put too much on the shoulders of the inexperienced Troy Smith.

Who will win? My head says Denver hold all the aces, but my heart says San Francisco will come out on top if they can establish their ground game and rely on [linebacker Patrick] Willis and [cornerback Nate] Clements to force some turnovers. 49ers to win a low-scoring encounter, 20-17.

As things turned out, my prediction was pretty good.

First half: Simmering frustration

The first half was as forecast, with neither side able to establish control. The 49ers kept the ball on the ground, while the Broncos took mainly to the air.

San Francisco’s gameplan was entirely predictable. Not wanting to put pressure on Smith too early, the 49ers leaned heavily on Frank Gore, who saw plenty of the ball in the Niners’ run-dominated scheme. Smith launched his first pass deep to keep the Broncos honest, but thereafter went exclusively with the short passing game, with play calls designed to use his mobility to roll out away from the pass rush and simplify the field for him.

Meanwhile, the defense gave up a few plays to Denver’s aerial attack, but never allowed them beyond the San Francisco 40-yard line. It was a tense, frustrating half, and not a particularly exciting one, even for the purists.

The 49ers' cheerleaders provided just about the only bright spark in a cagey first half

Frustration. After the 49ers go three-and-out on their opening possession, Andy Lee‘s excellent punt pins the Broncos on their three-yard line. However, two completions and two Knowshon Moreno runs quickly move them out to the San Francisco 40. The nail-biting begins as I start muttering about our weak pass rush.

Delight. Defensive end Justin Smith snuffs out the nascent threat, sacking Orton on third down. I leap to my feet and do a rather embarrassing little jig of delight. I sit down again. Denver punt.

Delight. The 49ers put together a seven and a half-minute drive, mixing the run and the short pass nicely. Gore tears off a 13-yard run.Vernon Davis snags a 12-yard catch, although it soon becomes apparent that the team’s star tight end, who missed a couple of days of practice with an ankle problem, is running only on half-tanks and will not be a factor in the game.

Frustration. The drive stalls inside the Denver 20, not aided by overly conservative play-calling. Joe Nedney converts a 34-yard field goal to open the scoring, but in a game where opportunities are likely to scarce, it feels more like four points dropped than three scored. 49ers 3 Broncos 0.

Frustration. Denver dominate the second quarter as the 49ers bog down. Smith misses with all three of his pass attempts and appears to be on a different page to his receivers. Two personal fouls – one conceding valuable field position after a good punt, the other negating a sack – indicate the creeping return of the penalties which have plagued San Francisco at crucial times this season. The Niner defence holds the Broncos at bay, but it’s only a matter of time. Half-time: 49ers 3 Broncos 0.

Agony. The queue for Wembley’s good quality but vastly overpriced food, served by sedated monkeys in uniform. Actually, that’s a bit unfair on monkeys: I’m sure they would be much more efficient.

At half-time, even though we’re ahead, I’m more than a little concerned. I know we can’t shut out the Broncos indefinitely, and our play-calling on offense has been all too predictable. Gore has done well, but Davis is clearly struggling and our best receiver Michael Crabtree has yet to make a catch. Smith has completed just four of nine passes for a paltry 37 yards, and while his mobility is impressive, his reading on pass plays is not. I’m taking my 20-17 prediction and revising it downwards. 13-10 seems the best we can hope for.

Second half: The agony and the ecstasy

Agony. The 49ers cross midfield to open the half, with Crabtree finally registering his first reception, but the drive stalls. Orton scrambles to convert on third-and-six, and on the next play launches a bomb to Brandon Lloyd, who is hauled down by rookie Taylor Mays after a 71-yard gain, the longest play of the game. Orton’s backup Tim Tebow immediately scores from the one. I start to mutter darkly about where our next points are going to come from and the need to open up the offense. 49ers 3 Broncos 7.

Agony. Josh Morgan takes a short pass from Smith for 30 yards. This is more like it! But then Smith, scrambling, inexplicably drops the ball, and although he does recover it the drive falters once more. Nedney’s 52-yard field goal try cannons back off the right upright, giving the Broncos great starting field position at their 42.

Frustration. Denver go three-and-out, but then so do we after three straight running plays. Er, guys, you know we’re behind, right?

Agony. Closing moments, third quarter: Orton hits Lloyd for 25 yards, then on the next play hands off to Moreno, who tosses it back to Orton. Three words leap involuntarily from my mouth: “Flea flicker!” then, aghast, “Open!” as Jabar Gaffney runs completely free as the secondary bites on the fake run. As everyone around me leaps to their feet, I sit there with my head in hands, not wanting to watch, waiting for the reaction of the crowd to tell me that Gaffney has indeed caught the ball for the touchdown. I want to kill the Denver fan two rows in front of me who, even from my seated position, I can see is jumping up and down in a celebratory frenzy. Instead, I settle for mouthing a forlorn prayer.

Immediate ecstasy. As Gaffney celebrates in the endzone, the officials nullify the touchdown for an illegal block. There is a God! Reprieved, the defense stiffens and Denver have to settle for a Matt Prater field goal. It’s still a one possession game – it could have been so much worse – and I start to brighten up, trotting out all the clichés about game-changing moments. I try to ignore the fact that, at this point, Smith has just 86 yards passing to his name – the equivalent of a football team entering the closing minutes having had just one shot which ballooned harmlessly into row Z. 49ers 3 Broncos 10 (14:13 remaining).

Ecstasy. Mild coronary. Ecstasy. Ted Ginn returns the kickoff close to midfield. Now forced to attack, Smith fires a strike to tight end Delanie Walker for 27 yards. Nice pass. On the very next play, Smith is flushed out of the pocket and, off balance, hefts an agricultural pass downfield into double coverage. Miraculously, Walker somehow comes down with the ball – a 38-yard completion to the 1. Smith then bootlegs to the right and sprints untouched into the endzone. The game is tied, and there is a definite surge from the crowd which senses a distinct change in momentum. I’m feeling it too. 49ers 10 Broncos 10 (11:51 remaining).

Troy Smith tied the score at 10-10 with this one-yard bootleg (image courtesy of 49ers.com)

Ecstasy. The Broncos falter again, and a short punt gives San Francisco possession at the Denver 48. Smith, confidence visibly elevated, hits Crabtree for 13 yards, then two plays the pair combine again down the left sideline for a 28-yard touchdown. I’m on my feet punching the air as Crabtree makes the grab, nearly three hours of frustration dissipating in an instant. We’re ahead – we might just win this! 49ers 17 Broncos 10 (7:23 remaining).

Double ecstasy. On Denver’s first play from scrimmage, Orton scrambles but Manny Lawson knocks the ball loose and linebacker Takeo Spikes recovers at the 18. A huge roar goes up from the crowd, and I can hear a small part of that coming from my own, slightly hoarse throat. Six plays later, Frank Gore puts his shoulder down and burrows his way through the pile for a three-yard score – a proper, old-fashioned touchdown straight out of the 1950s. Three touchdowns in eight minutes, a two-score lead, and the clock now very much in our favour. 49ers 24 Broncos 10 (3:47 remaining).

Frank Gore (#21, right) scored on this 3-yard run to put the Niners 24-10 up

Agony (and then a small smile). The San Francisco defence goes into go into ‘prevent’ mode. It prevents nothing. Eight plays and a minute and a half later, Orton hits Lloyd from the one, but Prater’s kick is blocked. I allow myself a small smile, but no more: a touchdown and successful two-point conversion will still force overtime. Time to start biting those nails again. 49ers 24 Broncos 16 (2:19 remaining).

Agony. Three conservative running plays and 43 seconds later, and we’re punting again. There are still 96 seconds remaining. Is that sound I hear the noise of a shotgun blasting off a foot?

Ecstasy. Eddie Royal returns Lee’s punt for an apparent 78-yard touchdown, but I’m calm as I’ve spotted a yellow flag which can only mean some kind of offensive penalty. Sure enough, there was an illegal block at the point of attack. Denver still have the ball, but all the way back at their 19.

A mild flutter, preceding final ecstasy. Two complete passes and another needless 49ers penalty see Denver move to the San Francisco 45. But then Orton’s deep ball for Gaffney is picked off by Shawntae Spencer, who makes a spectacular leaping grab. Smith takes a knee. Game over! Final score: 49ers 24 Broncos 16.

I’ve never felt so deliriously happy about supporting a 2-6 team as I did last night. If I had been there as a neutral, or watching at home on TV, it would have been just another win. Being there in the stadium, watching my team come out on top in a close game, it felt like we had just won the Super Bowl. In a sense, it being the UK’s one annual NFL game, we had.

Post-game reaction

After my pre-game and half-time reservations about Troy Smith, he really produced in the fourth quarter, riding his one major slice of luck to pass for 110 of his 196 yards in the final period, with an assurance which belied his inexperience and lack of familiarity with the 49ers’ playbook. On the basis of last night’s performance alone, the winner of the 2006 Heisman Trophy (the award given to the best player in college football) will be elevated above David Carr on the depth chart and could even retain the starting spot when his namesake Alex returns from injury.

Smith was aided by a young offensive line which is starting to gel and controlled the line of scrimmage well. Frank Gore rushed for 118 yards, and Smith was never sacked and rarely hurried. Michael Crabtree has the most secure hands the receiver corps has seen since the days of Jerry Rice. And tight end Delanie Walker really stepped up – having caught only seven passes in the first seven games, he led the 49ers with five catches for 85 yards and the all-important grab which set up Smith’s game-tying score.

Defensively the 49ers were solid against the run, although they remain vulnerable against the league’s better, faster passing attacks. The unit goes as inside linebacker Patrick Willis goes; he led the team with nine tackles and impressed, as always, with his sideline-to-sideline ability. And the defense came up with two critical fourth quarter turnovers to subdue Denver’s attempted comeback, with Spencer’s game-clinching interception giving him a team-leading three.

The team remains very much a work in progress, but the 49ers can approach the second half of the season with a little optimism.

Head coach Mike Singletary praised the Wembley crowd afterwards:

This trip was a tremendous trip. The people here in London are incredible, and the fans obviously love football just as much as we do. The fans made it a great time.

He also explained the reasoning behind an offensive gameplan which was, understandably, extremely cautious through the first three quarters:

We wanted to make sure we established the running game and allow Troy, in his third start in his career, to develop some type of rhythm, develop some type of consistency, some type of confidence. And not put too much on him too soon.

Smith himself acknowledged his hesitant start, but was rightfully pleased with his overall performance, having got the job done when called upon in the final quarter:

Even though we missed some things early on, I think the rhythm was put in place to make some plays later on. You have to be able to keep your head down and keep even-keeled as a quarterback.

And several 49ers players were quick to praise an atmosphere every bit as loud as Candlestick Park. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer said:

The energy is unbelievable. The fans, the [Mexican] wave, the flags. It really felt like a home game tonight.

And 13-year veteran Takeo Spikes added:

I wish I could play a game over here every year.

Even defeated Broncos coach Josh McDaniels had only good things to say:

The atmosphere in the stadium was awesome. I hope the people got what they wanted. It was a very pro-San Francisco crowd and we were fine with that. We wouldn’t change a single thing about this trip.

While the 49ers remain rooted to the bottom of the NFC West, both Arizona and Seattle lost yesterday, meaning they are now just two wins off the division lead. With five of their last eight games within the division, their fate is at least in their own hands, and a run of results in those five matches against the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals could yet see a late, improbable challenge for the division title and the guaranteed playoff place that goes with it. But that is one for the future. For now, the 49ers can return home and enjoy their bye next weekend in the knowledge of a job well done at Wembley. And I was there to see it. Brilliant!

Scoring summary:

1st Qtr, 0:23 – 49ers, Nedney 34 FG, 3-0

3rd Qtr, 8:08 – Broncos, Tebow 1 run (Prater kick), 3-7

4th Qtr, 14:13 – Prater 32 FG, 3-10

4th Qtr, 11:51 – Smith 1 run (Nedney kick), 10-10

4th Qtr, 7:23 – Crabtree 28 pass from Smith (Nedney kick), 17-10

4th Qtr, 3:47 – Gore 3 run (Nedney kick), 24-10

4th Qtr, 2:19 – Lloyd 1 pass from Orton (Prater kick failed), 24-16

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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