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What you need to know: In a matchup featuring two breakout stars from a year ago who have fallen on difficult times, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick came up with the much-needed strong showing.
Washington’s Robert Griffin? Not so much.
Kaepernick recorded the highest passer rating of his 21-start NFL career with a 134.5 showing in the 49ers’ 27-6 victory over the Washington on Monday Night Football.
Coach Jim Harbaugh described Kaepernick as “a perfect blend of loose and focused” in the week leading up to the game as criticism mounted. The 49ers had fallen on hard times, losing consecutive games to Carolina and New Orleans.
He took care of many of those issues while completing 15 of 24 pass attempts for 235 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Kaepernick relied heavily on wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. After some struggles through the first half, the 49ers’ offense got things rolling with two touchdowns in the third quarter to build on their 10-6 halftime lead.
Both teams struggled to move the ball in the first half in the 35-degree conditions.
“It was tough conditions out there offensively,” Harbaugh said, “but our defense got the pressure going. And Washington has been the best fourth-quarter team that we’ve seen all year. They way they put together points in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t let that happen. Our guys did a great job of getting the ball back for our offense.”
Washington was not effective in any quarter. Griffin completed just 17 of 27 passes for 127 yards. It was the first time in his 67 games as a starter at Baylor or in the NFL that his team failed to score a touchdown.
Afterward, 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks said he believed Griffin is still not healthy from knee surgery to repair damage that occurred last season in the playoffs.
"He’s a man, he has the heart of a warrior and is going to go out there and play regardless of the circumstance," Brooks told CSNWashington.com. "Everybody can see it. Everybody can see it. He shouldn’t be playing."
Safety Donte Whitner intercepted Griffin to lead to a second-quarter field goal. Washington, coming off a playoff season, dropped to 3-8 on the season and Griffin is absorbing the brunt of the criticism.
On Monday, his task was almost impossible while facing a 49ers defense that was on its game. After linebacker Patrick Willis stopped Washington running back Roy Helu on a fourth-and-2 play early in the third quarter, the 49ers’ offense got going, too.
Kaepernick hit Boldin for 32 yards and Davis for 20 more. Then, Kaepernick demonstrated poise after buying time out of the pocket. He stuck with the play long enough to spot Boldin running along the back line of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown.
“We knew what type of game this was for us,” said Boldin, who had his best performance since a 208-yard showing in Week 1 against Green Bay. Boldin caught five passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns.
“We’re right in the hunt. We knew we had to come out with a win,” Boldin said. “So that was our mindset coming in – come out and play tough. We knew they were going to be pretty hyped up about playing on Monday night, so we had to come in and take care of business.”
The victory keeps the 49ers (7-4) in line for a spot as an NFC wild-card team. The 49ers have the same record as the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers won the earlier meeting at Candlestick, 32-20, and the teams will meet in Arizona on the final Sunday of the regular season.
It’s a breeze for Brooks: Brooks made a name for himself a week earlier with his controversial hit on Saints quarterback Drew Brees that drew a game-changing penalty and a $15,750 fine from the NFL office.
There was no controversy in this game – only confirmation. Brooks has emerged into a star in the 49ers’ defense. Brooks worked over Washington right guard Tyler Polumbus en route to two sacks and three tackles for loss. Brooks now has a career-high and a team-leading 8.5 sacks.
“Finally, having that hit on Drew Brees gave me that publicity,” Brooks. “It was positive but it was also negative.”
There were no negatives on Monday. Brooks played a major role in a 49ers defensive effort that limited Washington to just 190 yards. Washington came in as the league’s top-ranked run game, but it was held to 100 yards on 27 attempts for a 3.7-yard average.
Aldon returns to form: Outside linebacker Aldon Smith had his best game since returning after a five-game absence from a voluntary leave of absence to seek treatment for substance abuse.
Although Dan Skuta made his eighth consecutive start, Smith played 45 of the 49ers’ 60 defensive snaps (75 percent). Smith’s return to an every-down role is something he believes contributed to his strong showing.
“Any time I can be in there on consecutive plays, it helps with the rhythm,” Aldon Smith said. “Any time you can get a rhythm being in the game that helps out. It was good for me to get back in there and get in the swing of being back in there every play.”
Smith is tied among active players with 12 sacks on Monday Night Football. He has played in just four games, while co-leader Dwight Freeney has appeared in 13 games.
[RELATED: Brooks, Smith turn up the heat on Griffin]
Smith, who has been battling a cold, said his conditioning is back where he wants it to be heading into upcoming home games against St. Louis and Seattle.
“Once I’m over this cold, I’ll be all right,” Smith said. “I’m just getting over it.”
Smith and Brooks combined for four sacks. Defensive lineman Justin Smith also appeared to have two sacks, but each time the statistician determined Griffin was running the ball. The 49ers will bring those plays to the attention of the Elias Sports Bureau, the organization that has the final say on the matter.
Crabtree is coming: Wide receiver Michael Crabtree will be activated to the 53-man roster on Tuesday after spending the first 11 games on the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list. Crabtree continues to rehab his surgically repaired right Achilles tendon, which was torn during the team’s offseason program in May.
[RELATED: 49ers will activate Crabtree on Tuesday]
Harbaugh said he expects Crabtree to be available to play Sunday at Candlestick Park against the Rams.
“I anticipate that, yes,” Harbaugh said.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham had his best game since his return from a knee injury that ended his season last December. He caught four passes for 45 yards.
“Mario had a very good night, and Crabtree is coming back (this) week,” Harbaugh said. “And, hopefully, we get a few other guys back. We need them all. This is only for the tough. Where our team is headed, it’s only for the tough.”
Tight-rope act: In his third game as the 49ers’ punt returner, LaMichael James had a 40-yard return down the sideline that set up the 49ers’ final touchdown late in the third quarter.
“I haven’t done it that much,” James said. “I feel every week I’m getting better and better. Eventually I’m going to pop one. And hopefully it’ll be soon.”
James averaged 14.4 yards on five punt returns, but afterward he said he was also thinking of a muffed punt he had in the fourth quarter. James recovered his own fumble to avoid a turnover.
Injury report: The 49ers appeared to make it through without any significant injuries. However, the 49ers played Monday night without three starters.
Left defensive tackle Ray McDonald missed his second game with a high-ankle sprain. He has a chance to return to action Sunday against the Rams. Tony Jerod-Eddie made his second start in place of McDonald.
Left guard Mike Iupati, out for a couple of weeks with a knee sprain, was replaced by Adam Snyder. Cornerback Tarell Brown is expected to miss a couple of games with a ribs injury. He was replaced by Tramaine Brock, who played the entire game.
Grounding to a halt: Running back Frank Gore did not have much room to run against a Washington defense that crowed the line of scrimmage. Gore managed just 31 yards rushing on 13 attempts. He took most of the fourth quarter off after the 49ers built a commanding lead. Gore played 34 of the 49ers’ 58 offensive plays. Kendall Hunter played 18 snaps and didn’t fare much better with 12 yards on eight attempts. Anthony Dixon got into the game late with eight snaps, and LaMichael James had three plays on offense.
Quote of the day: ”Some people have baby deer skin. Some people have armadillo skin. He’s got armadillo skin.”
--Harbaugh on Kaepernick’s toughness
Looking ahead: The Rams (5-6) are surging after two impressive victories. On Sunday, the Rams defeated Chicago Bears 42-21. A week earlier, St. Louis went on the road to pull off a 38-8 upset of the Indianapolis Colts. The Rams have found a big-play element in rookie Tavon Austin, who scored on a 65-yard run against the Bears. In the previous game, he scored on a 98-yard punt return, and caught touchdown passes from Kellen Clemens of 57 and 81 yards.