LANDOVER, Md. -- In the past two weeks, the San Francisco 49ers watched their grip on a playoff berth grow shaky after losing two games by a combined total of four points. They went from being one of the hottest NFL teams to a 6-4 club lacking an offensive identity.
Yet, as the 49ers traveled across the country to play under the bright lights of "Monday Night Football," coach Jim Harbaugh wasn't interested in style points or making statements. After falling at home to the Carolina Panthers by a point and losing a controversial game at the New Orleans Saints by a field goal, the 49ers cared only about winning.
"By any means necessary," Harbaugh said after the game. "That’s what we wanted. We just wanted to win."
However, it was significant that the 49ers made strides in cleaning up their most pressing issue: the offense.
If the 49ers are going to beat out the Arizona Cardinals for the final NFC playoff spot (the NFC West rivals are tied for the second wild-card berth with 7-4 records), their offense is going to have to stay as effective as it was Monday night. San Francisco has played championship-level defense most of the season. In the losses to Carolina and New Orleans, it was the offense that lagged with fewer than 200 total yards in each game. Against the Redskins, the 49ers totaled 304 yards.
"We did some big things in the passing game tonight," San Francisco running back Frank Gore said. "Good things happened. We needed it."
The 49ers, who scored at least 31 points in each game during a five-game winning streak earlier this season, weren’t perfect offensively Monday. But they were much improved from the past two weeks and did more than enough to win.
The key was that quarterback Colin Kaepernick pressed the offense down the field. In what could be a good sign heading down the stretch, Kaepernick actually had multiple passing options. Mario Manningham, in his third game since returning from a knee injury, was a key target in the first half and finished the night with a season-best four catches for 45 yards.
While Manningham's numbers look modest, his presence was enough to spring loose Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. Boldin and Davis had faced double- and triple-teams all season as the 49ers' only receiving threats, and it often caused the offense to stagnate. But Manningham's effectiveness changed that dynamic.
The result was that Kaepernick played freely and confidently. The 49ers moved the ball.
Kaepernick was 15 of 24 for 235 yards with three touchdowns (two to Boldin and one to Davis), his most since having three in Week 1, and no interceptions. Kaepernick has thrown for 14 touchdowns this season, all to Davis (nine) and Boldin (five).
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick went 6 of 9 for 158 yards and a touchdown on passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield. Kaepernick had entered Monday night with a 36.5 completion percentage on such throws.
"We got back to being explosive tonight," San Francisco guard Alex Boone said. "We really got back to having success in the passing game. … I think having Mario out there really helped. It just gives us more weapons."
The 49ers will be getting deeper, too. Michael Crabtree is expected to be activated to the 53-man roster Tuesday. He has been out since May with a torn Achilles tendon. Harbaugh said Monday night he anticipates that Crabtree, the 49ers' No. 1 receiver, will play Sunday against the St. Louis Rams. It would be a stretch to think Crabtree will be a major factor immediately, but he should be near full strength in the next few weeks.
Monday provided a glimpse of what this offense can do when Kaepernick has options. Naturally, Kaepernick has taken the brunt of the criticism for the 49ers' offensive woes, but I've maintained that his struggles had more to do with the pieces he had to work with.
Things should only be getting better for Kaepernick and San Francisco.
If so, the 49ers (who have won six games by double digits, second most in the NFL behind Denver) will catapult right back to being one of the NFL's most dangerous teams. If the passing game is on track, there are few weaknesses left.
According to Harbaugh, style points weren’t the goal Monday night, but if this team is going to play into January, offensive style points will become a necessity. Monday's performance showed that the 49ers have enough passing threats on the roster to succeed when it counts.