Programming note: Watch 49ers Press Conference Live Monday at noon on CSN Bay Area, or streaming live right here.
GREEN BAY, Wis -- In the end, we learned that the San Francisco 49ers like time outs well enough, but they don't really need to have a serious committed relationship with them.
That's what Colin Kaepernick does for them. And Frank Gore. And Michael Crabtree. And as much as anyone, Phil Dawson. They all know somehow how to position themselves in such a way that they can roast time outs like so many s’mores and still have veritable eternities to win games.
Take, for example, Sunday here in Wisconsin, where temperatures dropped into the low North Koreas and the 49ers needed only the game’s first 5:36 and the first 6:43 of the second half to burn four of their six time outs. And yet, in beating the Green Bay Packers, 23-20, to advance to a divisional playoff in Carolina next week, they still had oodles of time to . . . well, beat the Packers, 23-20.
That’s a skill. It’s also a gift, provided only through the grace of playmakers like quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree, and ATM-reliable knife-edges like Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, and defiants like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox and . . . well, let’s just say we take the roster down to kicker Phil Dawson and say that this day of this season was the 49ers’ finest hour.
[MAIOCCO: Cox returns, plays vital role in 49ers playoff victory]
The 16-play, 55-yard drive that Dawson concluded with his 33-yard field goal at double-naught was a masterwork of all the virtues Khaki Jim Harbaugh cited -- especially toughness and clutchitude. Or was it clutchiness and toughitude, or grit and forbearance and, well speed and bullnecked will and impossibly long strides and hands that cannot reject brick-like footballs – is it all right to include all those things in a game the 49ers could very well have lost?
Or was it just, well, one more example of the 2011 49ers coming home to roost?
You remember them -- winning with defense, running and a field goal kicker who couldn't be stirred or shaken regardless of the conditions. This was a classic game from that highlight film – from the early red zone struggles to the seamless drive at the end that ends in the winning field goal that, in an act of purest serendipity, ended the game right on the betting line.
So while there were performers aplenty, maybe this game ended as it should, at the business end of Dawson’s foot with no time left. Because, as the Khaki Avenger said several times, “Our guys have been here before.”
Actually, Dawson hasn’t, having done a seemingly endless apprenticeship in Cleveland on a series of bad teams. He’d been in one playoff game his entire career, a loser in Pittsburgh a decade ago, and his second biggest game was the 2012 Pro Bowl.
But those years in Cleveland, and the success he has had in San Francisco, made him the most apt choice to end a taut and delightful playoff game that the conditions indicated should have been much worse.
“Under any conditions, especially with the factors working against us, the wind a little in our face, the offense really put me in a wonderful position, if there is such a thing,” Dawson said afterward. “It was blowing left to right at the tunnel end, but it’s pretty much what we expected. My range was probably 46-47 yards there, but they made it a lot easier for me.”
Indeed, it was Kaepernick’s 11-yard scramble with 1:13 left to convert a third-and-8 at the Packer 38 that put Dawson within range. The run, Kaepernick’s ninth (for 98 yards), highlighted one of the quarterback’s best games ever, between his throws to Crabtree, his drive-extending runs and his general command. Indeed, if he hadn’t forgotten his wristband with the play calls on it to start the second half (one of the wasted time outs), he might have called it a great performance.
[MAIOCCO: Kaepernick, 49ers come up clutch to keep season alive]
He wouldn’t, of course, because that would be too close to an actual speech, but we digress.
The point is, the 49ers were given a series of opportunities to lose through the incandescence of Aaron Rodgers, but didn’t. Green Bay was a far more live opponent this time than it was in September, but it didn’t have the ball at the end. San Francisco did, and the 49ers had Dawson as its closer.
It mattered greatly that Dawson had spent most of his career kicking in Cleveland, which could give Green Bay all it wanted for cold and wind. Between knowing how to kick on frozen dirt in the face of funky winds and even how sharing his knowledge of how to prepare for Stalingrad conditions, Dawson was as good a go-to guy as David Akers was in 2011 -- maybe even better.
He even showed other players, including linebacker Patrick Willis, the value of Warm Skin, a salve that slightly tempers vicious cold. Slightly, anyway. I mean, even bathroom spackle can do only so much, but any degree of warmth can be of help.
So it made perfect sense that Dawson closed it with his 32nd field goal in his last 33 attempts – a seemingly easy field goal that referee Ed Hochuli mistakenly called a touchdown.
“My wife will like that,” Dawson said as he learned of being the first person since the old Miami kicker Garo Yepremian to “kick a touchdown.” “She loves Ed.”
In sum, based on the way the 49ers play week in and week out, Dawson is as vital in his way as Kaepernick or Gore or Crabtree or Willis or NaVorro Bowman or The Khaki Avenger. The 49ers do not blow good teams out. They don't gimmick, or outthink teams, or run up scores. They make do with size, speed, toughness and an educated old leg that isn't really that old at all. They Win By Three, because you don't get extra credit for winning by four, no matter how much easier it may make your life. They are 16-7 in games decided by eight points or fewer in the last three seasons.
And now comes Carolina, a team that beat them by one back in November. If you think Phil Dawson won’t matter then, you must be new in town.