So here, ultimately, what we learned about the 49ers after this week’s BIGGIDY-BIGGEST GAME OF THE YEAR, and right before this coming week's BIGGIDY-BIGGEST GAME OF THE YEAR:
1. They can, as they did a year ago against New Orleans, beat the best at the other guys’ game, even when they can’t do it with their own.
2. Colin Kaepernick is exactly what you thought he was – a player who can do spectacular things, for both teams.
3. Say what you want about any other player on this well-constructed roster – Justin Smith is unquestionably first among equals, and the team’s most important player.
In beating New England, 41-34, the 49ers are again the nation’s darlings. Overcoming a mountain of statistical trends and the ethereal T. E. P. Brady, they are now the “team to beat” in the January sweepstakes.
[REWIND: 49ers out-slug Patriots 41-34]
Indeed, despite the hoop-de-blah to come about Seattle this weekend, the 49ers are essentially a lock to win the NFC West because they close the season out with Arizona. The only reason they actually need to win Sunday is to keep Green Bay (playing Tennessee and at Minnesota) in third, and hope that somehow Atlanta loses at Detroit and against Tampa Bay.
But we’ve known they were playing for January for awhile now, and Sunday night’s game was a fascinating study in a number of thiungs we should have already known.
For instance, how Kaepernick can take errors of his own making and survive them (I mean, the 49ers fumbled six times and lost one), and in doing so make himself a folk hero.
This is now a rekindling of the Alex Smith debate. That ship has long sailed, and Smith is now a very distant memory, in that Steve DeBerg way.
But we knew Kaepernick would do wondrous things and make skull-smacking errors because that’s what rookies with physical gifts do. Normally a game with eight fumbles has a more even distribution pattern than seven for you and one for the other guy, and is therefore rejected as a game plan plus.
On a larger scale, though, the 49ers came to Foxborough unlikely to win a shootout, and did. New England got its 34 points, but the 49ers got more than twice as many as you’d have figured them to get, especially without a single legitimate rushing touchdown. Kaepernick threw two to Michael Crtabtree, the undisputed go-to receiver, one each to Randy Moss and Delanie Walker, and amazingly still can’t find Vernon Davis with a pack of bloodhounds.
And the fifth? An inadvertent fumblerooskie by Frank Gore. Hey, it’s better to be lucky than good, and best yet to be both.
But this was a rout in the making until Justin Smith went out with an elbow injury, and suddenly the 49er defense was at sixes and sevens trying to harass Brady or the Patriot offense as a whole. It is clearer now than ever that his work on the defensive line makes all other things possible, and if he misses any appreciable time with the injury (and he is likely to punch the doctor in the face if told he will), the 49ers stop being the team to beat.
That’s how important he is. On a unit that has essentially no outs in the lineup, he is the one that changes the way the other 10 are allowed to play. Even the secondary, which gave up 443 yards but forced Brady to beat them with Brandon Lloyd rather than Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, was far more effective while Smith was disrupting with Logan Mankins than not.
In sum, we had some evidence that the 49ers could run and with the Patriots, though we doubted they could do it in Massachusetts in December in crap weather. We were largely wrong there. We knew that Colin Kaepernick could do many good and bad things, and remains the damp dynamite of the 49er roster; we were spot-on there.
And we all knew about Justin Smith, though the difference between 10 points with him in the game and 24 when he wasn’t merely illustrates it more starkly. His health is in many ways San Francisco’s.
In all, this was a worthwhile expenditure of their time. They mostly re-established self-evident truths, but since those truths are flattering, self-evident is mostly a good thing. Now they just have to dance in one more graveyard – Seattle – before they arrive home safe and dry when the real season starts in three weeks.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com