NFC West: Andy Lee

49ers practice report

August, 20, 2014
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Before being pulled off Levi’s Stadium’s loose grass field less than an hour after practice began by coach Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers did go through the paces for a bit in front of a couple thousand fans.

A few highlights, then, of the 49ers' final public practice.
  • Wide receiver Michael Crabtree was still not in attendance, as he was in Texas the day before for the birth of his son Michael III.
  • Even before the public practice was cut short, the poor condition of the field was obvious, from divots flying out when players made cuts to the discolored spots in the middle of the field. And if Bruce Ellington tweaking his right ankle in a one-on-one drill with cornerback Chris Culliver was not proof enough, then Stevie Johnson taking a spill untouched on an out pattern at the goal line and jerking his left leg sealed it.
  • Phil Dawson, one of the more accurate kickers in NFL history, continued to work on his craft after missing a pair of field goals in Sunday’s 34-0 exhibition loss to the Denver Broncos by kicking numerous field goals. If Andy Lee was not holding, then Dawson had a metal holder in his place so he could work solo.
  • Ellington, LaMichael James and veteran Anquan Boldin were the three players fielding punts.
  • Cornerback Tramaine Brock picked off McLeod Bethel-Thompson on a pass intended for David Reed on the right sideline and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
Examining the San Francisco 49ers' roster:


Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.


The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Hunter is too valuable to let go. That means 2012 second-round pick LaMichael James will have difficulty making the roster.


The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.


If Davis ends his holdout, I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.


Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.


This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.


Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.


This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.


Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.


This group is set and it's excellent.
The celebration of Ray Guy's election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday extended beyond Guy and the Oakland Raiders.

It’s a victory for all punters.

“It was a proud day to be a punter,” said San Francisco 49ers punter Andy Lee on Tuesday. “If it gives us an inch more of respect, it’s a great thing. It’s a great thing for our position.”

Guy, who punted for the Raiders from 1973-86, is the first player who primarily was a punter to gain election into the Hall of Fame. For Lee, who has been a star punter for the 49ers for the past 10 seasons, it’s important to see a punter get this type of recognition.

“I know some people don’t consider us football players, and I understand their points, but I think we are an important part of the game,” Lee said. “This kind of puts punters on the map.”

Guy’s election is also special for Lee because they have known each other for several years. They first met when Lee was a college freshman at Pittsburgh when he attended Guy’s punting camp. Lee later worked at the camp. He sent Guy a text to express his congratulations as soon as he heard the news Saturday.

Lee said he never talked to guy about his candidacy, but said the lack of punters in the Hall of Fame was often a topic among the specialists on the 49ers.

“He is a mentor and a friend,” Lee said. “It’s great to see him break this barrier.”
The San Francisco 49ers had eight players named to the Pro Bowl on Friday night.

Who made it: LB Ahmad Brooks, LB NaVorro Bowman, tight end Vernon Davis, RB Frank Gore, G Mike Iupati, DL Justin Smith, LT Joe Staley, LB Patrick Willis.

My thoughts: The 49ers’ eight Pro Bowl selections is tied for the league high. The name that stands out is Brooks, who is having a great year. But he may be overshadowed by Bowman and Willis. It was good to see Brooks get the recognition he deserves. Iupati’s selection is a bit surprising considering he missed four games with a knee sprain, but he has played well when on the field.

Snubbed: Receiver Anquan Boldin, guard Alex Boone, punter Andy Lee, safeties Donte Whitner and Eric Reid and special teamer CJ Spillman were selected as alternates. They all easily could have made it. I think the biggest snubs are Boone, Dawson and Whitner. All three had huge seasons.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – This is one of the few times I've typed Kevin McDermott's name in his rookie season.

That means he’s been perfect.

NFL teams have a credo for long-snappers: Don’t get your name in print; if you do, it usually means you've messed up. As long as the long-snapper snaps well, he usually goes unnoticed. Just as teams want.

But the fact that McDermott has been so good is noteworthy. His battle with venerable and popular snapper Brian Jennings was a major storyline during camp, and it came as a shock to many when the San Francisco 49ers released Jennings in favor of the rookie from UCLA. Jennings was steady as a rock and was the team's elder statesman, having been with the 49ers for 13 years.

But McDermott’s youth, cheaper price tag and potential won out. So far, so good.

“He’s done well,” coach Jim Harbaugh said of McDermott. “That there aren’t weekly questions about Kevin McDermott and his snapping, that’s a real positive. When the snapper’s not, when you’re not talking about the snapper, then he’s doing well. And he has done well. Been a lot of pressure snaps and done a real fine job, and it’s good to point that out.”

McDermott said his battle with Jennings was “surreal” because Jennings was the longest-tenured player on the team and he knew there were a lot of eyes on him. McDermott credits veteran kicker Phil Dawson and punter Andy Lee for guiding him through his rookie season.

“It’s been great,” McDermott said. “As the snapper, you just want to go out and do your job and stay quiet, and it’s been really good so far.”

Sounds like a veteran snapper.
The rookie wage scale and overall salary structure should increasingly make the NFL a young man's game, all else equal.

Youth will be served during rookie minicamps beginning Friday, for sure.

With that in mind, I've gone through NFC West rosters singling out for special recognition players age 30 and older (or turning 30 before regular-season openers). There are 29 such players in the division by my count, including longtime NFC West stars Frank Gore (turns 30 next week) and Larry Fitzgerald (turns 30 in August). Twenty of them play for the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers.

A team-by-team look at NFC West elders, with ages rounded to the tenth of a year:
The chart provides a team and positional look at these players. I'm expecting the Rams to have the youngest roster in the NFL this season.

Update: Add Karlos Dansby to the list for the Cardinals. The 31-year-old linebacker has agreed to terms with Arizona, the team announced.

Concerns over recent performance issues gave the San Francisco 49ers reason to consider releasing kicker David Akers.

The ability to clear $3 million in needed salary-cap room at the same time made Akers' release inevitable.

"The 49ers would like to thank David for his service, dedication and leadership over the past two years," general manager Trent Baalke said in a statement announcing Akers' release. "He is a true professional who represented himself and this organization with class. We wish him, and his family, all the best."

That's high praise from a GM following a kicker's two-year run with a team. As the 49ers noted, Akers led the NFL in scoring over the past two seasons, having set an NFL single-season record for field goals made (44) and attempted (52) in 2011.

Akers' kicking percentage plummeted this season for two reasons. One, the 49ers' improvement in the red zone gave Akers fewer easy chances. Two, Akers' accuracy suffered from longer ranges even though he tied the NFL record with a 63-yarder in Week 1.

Akers, 38, has earned Pro Bowl honors six times.

The chart compares Akers' field goal stats in 2012 to those for other NFC West kickers. He was last.

Akers' release leaves $566,668 in dead money on the 49ers' books, defined as salary-cap charges for players no longer on the roster. That figure represents one-third of the $1.7 million signing bonus San Francisco paid to Akers as part of a three-year deal in 2011. Akers will not receive the $3 million in salary he was scheduled to earn in 2013.

The 49ers are trimming salary as they seek to comply with the $123.9 million salary cap by the NFL deadline Tuesday. They've had quite a bit of money tied up in specialists. Punter Andy Lee's contract is scheduled to count more than $4 million against the cap in 2013.

The 49ers will be in the market for a kicker this offseason.

Quick age snapshot for Moss and 49ers

February, 4, 2013
Randy Moss indicated during Super Bowl week that he would like to continue playing in 2013.

The San Francisco 49ers will have to decide whether they want Moss and several other older players to play for them in the future.

The 49ers have 10 players age 30 and older. The chart lists them by when their contracts expire. San Diego has a league-high 20 players age 30 and older. Miami has a league-low five. Arizona has 12, Seattle has nine and St. Louis has six. Those figures count players finishing the season on injured reserve.

Three of the 49ers' 10 oldest players are specialists. Three others -- Carlos Rogers, Jonathan Goodwin and Justin Smith -- played at least 75 percent of the offensive or defensive snaps. Moss and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga were key contributors while playing less than half the snaps. Clark Haggans and Leonard Davis were veteran backups.

The 49ers have a strong core of young players on offense in particular, including four of their offensive linemen, their quarterback and two running backs.

Note: This is probably going to wrap up the day from my end. I'm well into the second and final leg of a flight from Denver to Seattle on the way back from New Orleans. See you Tuesday unless something major happens before then.

Tucker/AkersUSA TODAY SportsRavens rookie kicker Justin Tucker, No. 9, has outperformed 49ers veteran David Akers.
NEW ORLEANS -- Field goal tries have decided two of the 11 most recent Super Bowls and four of them overall.

San Francisco 49ers fans could do without such a finish in Super Bowl XLVII after their team's kicker, David Akers, missed 10 of his 19 tries from at least 40 yards this season.

Not that the 49ers' opponent in this Super Bowl has sailed through the playoffs on the strength of its special teams. The Baltimore Ravens have their own issues in that area.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley have covered most of the other angles heading into this game. Can they pull off an item dedicated solely to special teams or will this one bounce off the upright? You decide.

Sando: Ravens fans probably don't want to hear about Akers' struggles. They're still recovering from Billy Cundiff's missed field goal in the playoffs last season. But as I've watched the 49ers and Ravens advance through the playoffs, special-teams issues have been impossible to overlook. Here we have the Ravens, led by a former special-teams coach, allowing 104-yard and 90-yard returns for touchdowns in a close game at Denver. And here we have the 49ers, with big bucks invested in special-teams coach Brad Seely, hoping against hope that Akers can make routine field goals. Are we overreacting here, Jamison?

Hensley: Not an overreaction at all, Mike. It's kind of been a curse with Ravens head coaches. Brian Billick could never get the offense on track when he was in Baltimore after coordinating the highest-scoring offense at the time in Minnesota. The same goes for Harbaugh, who has to be irritated by the critical breakdowns on special teams after spending most of his NFL career coordinating that area of the game. It was worse for the Ravens last season, when they allowed three touchdowns on special teams.

Sando: I remember one of them well. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown in Baltimore. Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs and the New York Jets’ Joe McKnight also did the return-game scoring honors against the Ravens last season. It was the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday with that 104-yard kickoff return and 90-yard punt return this postseason.

Hensley: John Harbaugh thought the problem was fixed. The Ravens didn't allow a special-teams touchdown in the regular season and didn't allow even one yard on a return of any kind in the wild-card playoff game against Indianapolis. But lapses on special teams nearly cost the Ravens in the AFC division playoff game, where they gave up those touchdowns to Holliday. The Ravens still express confidence in their coverage teams and they have veteran experience there with Brendon Ayanbadejo, Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo. Still, those errors have to be in the back of the Ravens' minds.

Sando: The 49ers have had their own special-teams adventures, of course. We all remember Kyle Williams’ miscues dooming San Francisco to defeat in the NFC Championship Game one year ago. You might also recall Ted Ginn Jr. struggling to field the ball in the rain against New England this season. Ginn was a consistent threat in 2011, but not so much this season. He did have a 20-yard punt return against Atlanta in the NFC title game this year. Ginn has six career return touchdowns, three apiece on punts and kickoffs. He is a player to watch on special teams in this matchup. Playing the game indoors removes weather as a concern -- big for returners.

Hensley: The Ravens actually had Ginn in for a visit this offseason because they were looking to upgrade at returner. They finally decided he was too much of a risk considering his injury history. Baltimore was lucky in landing Jacoby Jones. A week after the Texans released Jones, the Ravens signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal. He has been an electric returner for the Ravens, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl this season that he didn't make. Jones is the only player in NFL history with two kickoff returns of at least 105 yards in a career. And he did it in one season. The other big pickup made by the Ravens this offseason was kicker Justin Tucker, an undrafted rookie who beat out Cundiff this summer.

Sando: Ah, yes, Cundiff. The 49ers signed him to compete with Akers before the playoffs got going. That is how desperate they had become after Akers made only 11 of his final 18 tries of the regular season. Akers, Cundiff and Green Bay’s Mason Crosby were the only qualifying kickers making less than 70 percent of their field goal tries during the regular season. Counting the playoffs, Akers has made only 9 of 19 tries from 40-plus yards. He bounced one off the upright against Atlanta, making that game the 49ers’ first under Jim Harbaugh without at least one made field goal.

Hensley: While the decision to go with Tucker over Cundiff proved to be the right one, it was still a gutsy call by Harbaugh back in the end of August. The Ravens went from Cundiff, a Pro Bowl kicker in 2010, to Tucker, an undrafted rookie out of Texas. They went from Cundiff, who had converted 89.9 percent of his kicks inside the 50 over the past two years (53-of-59) and led the NFL in touchbacks, to Tucker, who had never kicked in a regular-season game.

Sando: How the mighty have fallen. Akers set an NFL record for made field goals in 2011. He and Cundiff were both Pro Bowlers recently.

Hensley: Tucker has surpassed expectations. He connected on 90.9 percent of his field goals (30-of-33) in the regular season, which was the second-best mark by a rookie kicker in NFL history. Tucker also has been clutch with three game winners, including a 47-yarder to win the AFC divisional playoff game in double overtime. Another strength of the Ravens is at punter, and the 49ers can say the same thing.

Sando: I think Andy Lee is the best punter in the NFL. And while there’s no truth to the adage that special teams comprise one-third of the game, there’s no question field position can matter a great deal in a game between evenly matched opponents. So can last-second field goals. And if this game comes down to one of those, the Ravens have to like their chances.
Just wanted to pass along a quick note from Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information: The San Francisco 49ers' Andy Lee recently edged the Arizona Cardinals' Dave Zastudil for the NFL's 2012 punter of the year in voting by ESPN writers, researchers and data analysts.

I listed Lee first and Zastudil second on my ballot. Seattle's Jon Ryan finished fifth. New Orleans' Thomas Morstead was third. Kansas City's Dustin Colquitt was fourth.

Punters are a bit like home-field advantages. They're not going to make a bad team win games, but they can put a good team over the top in close ones.

Here's what Simon had to say about the punters and the voting process:

"Lee edged out Zastudil in an extremely close vote. Lee edged out Morstead for the NFL’s net average crown (43.2 yards). Lee finished with 36 punts inside the 20 and four touchbacks. His 9-to-1 ratio of inside-the-20 punts to touchbacks ranked tied for fourth-best in NFL. His 36 punts inside the 20 ranked third. Lee had the second-highest percentage of punts inside the 20 (53.7 percent). He was also a two-time winner of "Punter of the Week" honors this season.

"Zastudil led the NFL in punts with 112, 21 more than the player who finished second. He set NFL single-season records for total punt yardage and number of punts inside the 20. Zastudil also fared well by the advanced metrics kept by ESPN's analytics team. His average punt added 1.4 percent to the Cardinals' chances of winning, which was an NFL best, as was his average expected points added per punt (0.33).

"Lee received seven of a possible 15 first-place votes and was named on 15 of the 20 ballots. Five points were awarded for a first-place vote. Three points were given for a second-place vote. Zastudil received five first-place votes and five second-place votes. Lee won our points voting by four points (44-40). Morstead finished with 17 points, Colquitt 14, and Ryan 5."

Congrats to all the nominees. Punters don't get a ton of attention. We've got some good ones here in the NFC West.

Good morning.

We discussed at one point Wednesday the number of Pro Bowl players on each NFC West team's roster. San Francisco has 17, most in the NFL. Arizona has four, tied for fewest.

Most teams have a couple of deserving but as-yet-unrecognized players, and that is the case in the NFC West. Arizona's Calais Campbell and Daryl Washington come to mind. Seattle's Richard Sherman comes to mind. There are others.

Some players with Pro Bowl pedigrees aren't playing at anywhere close to that level. That is the case with some NFC West players.

We can sort through that another time. For now, I'll list the players on each NFC West team with at least one Pro Bowl on their résumés.
Separating these players by how well each is actually playing at present could be a project for another day.

NFC West Pro Bowl analysis

December, 26, 2012
» NFC Pro Bowl: East | West | North | South » AFC Pro Bowl: East | West | North | South

Perfect sense: The San Francisco 49ers put nine players in the Pro Bowl. The Seattle Seahawks were next among NFC West teams with five. Arizona had one. St. Louis had none. These results were not shocking.

The 49ers sent two-fifths of their starting offensive line and six members of their defense to the Pro Bowl. Tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati were natural selections on the line.

The 49ers' Frank Gore and the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch were solid choices behind Adrian Peterson at running back.

Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable suggested Russell Okung was playing as well as any left tackle around. Voters apparently agreed. They named him as one of the starters, a first for Okung. Voters showed some smarts by selecting Seattle's Max Unger as the starting center. He's been very good since last season. The word must be getting around.

Patrick Peterson's struggles as a punt returner for Arizona did not keep him from becoming a first-time Pro Bowl choice at cornerback. Peterson made it only as a returner last season. He has generally been very good in pass coverage this season, although San Francisco gave him problems in a Monday night game. Peterson might not be the best corner in the NFC West, but he has had a good season overall.

NFC West defensive backs scored big for the second year in a row. The 49ers' Dashon Goldson (starter) and Seattle's Earl Thomas (backup) are the free safeties. The 49ers' Donte Whitner is the strong safety. All play for top defenses and winning teams. That probably gave them the edge over Arizona's Kerry Rhodes and St. Louis' Quintin Mikell. Defensive back play is a strength in the division.

Returner Leon Washington has helped Seattle rank among the league leaders in field position this season. He was a strong choice as the kickoff returner.

Made it on rep: I was watching to see whether Larry Fitzgerald would make it on name. He did not. The quarterback situation in Arizona isn't his fault, of course, but Pro Bowl selections Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Julio Jones and Victor Cruz head a long list of receivers enjoying more productive seasons in 2012. The other players selected from the NFC West have been having good enough seasons to receive strong consideration. We can debate whether all were the best choices, but that is true every year. None of the players selected should apologize to anyone.

Some have questioned whether the 49ers' Justin Smith has been as effective this season. His sacks are down. Smith made it as a starter at defensive tackle even though he plays defensive end in the base defense. Smith was a worthy choice despite his diminished sack production, in my view. The 49ers' recent struggles without him provide supporting evidence.

Got robbed: Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, Cardinals linebackers Daryl Washington, Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell and 49ers punter Andy Lee are four that come to mind first. The Rams put no players in the Pro Bowl despite a vastly improved record. There were no obvious oversights, however.

Sherman has arguably been the best corner in the NFL this season. He's also facing a potential four-game suspension for allegedly using performance-enhancing drugs. Voters must have held that against him. Otherwise, Sherman would have been an easy choice, even above the very deserving players selected.

Washington, who leads the Cardinals with nine sacks, should get some sort of consideration even though it's tough to say the 49ers' Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were undeserving. All three are inside linebackers. Willis and Bowman are less specialized. They're plenty fast, but also able to take on blocks. Washington relies more on avoiding opposing linemen to blow up plays. He's very good at it, too. But the road to Hawaii runs through San Francisco for inside linebackers. Best of luck to anyone trying to break through.

At punter, I haven't studied New Orleans' Thomas Morstead enough to comment on his play, but the punters from San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona would have been worthy choices based on their play this season.

Campbell has been flat-out dominant at times this season. He also missed games to injury. But with the Cardinals' defense ranking among the league leaders against the pass despite no help from their own offense, Campbell had to get consideration.

Washington's Robert Griffin III beat out Seattle's Russell Wilson as a backup quarterback on the NFC squad. Wilson has closed ground recently, but voting took place a week ago. That put Wilson at a disadvantage. He would have had a better chance if voting took place this week or possibly next.

Thomas was the lone Seahawks defender. That was a bit of a surprise for a team that has allowed fewer points than any other. Chris Clemons? Brandon Mebane? It wasn't to be for Seattle's defensive line. Late-game breakdowns against Detroit and Miami didn't help. Seattle's run defense also softened as the season progressed.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

Around the NFC West: Lee gets the nod

December, 20, 2012
Few things get the blood pumping around here quite like a good punter discussion.

Gratuitous punting references obviously drive traffic all around the web. Here in the NFC West, we just happen to be blessed with multiple outstanding punters. I've tried to handle the excess responsibly, but it's just tough not to sensationalize given the subject matter.

I mean, who doesn't get excited about a solid net average? What kid doesn't dream about pinning his opponent inside the 5?

This past week, Andy Lee's 54-yard net average for the San Francisco 49ers was the highest all season in the NFL for any player with four or more punts. That was one reason Mark Simon, ESPN's professor of punting, chose Lee as his punter of the week.

"Lee had three key fourth-quarter punts that netted an average of 55 yards, including a 59-yarder with 3:09 remaining," Simon said. "Lee fared well via advanced metrics as well. He had the second-best expected points added per punt among those with multiple punts. He ranks third in the NFL in punts inside the 20 and second in net average."

Lee was also Simon's choice for punter of the week against Seattle in Week 7 even though some in the punting community thought Arizona's Dave Zastudil might have made a better choice with all five of his punts downed inside the Minnesota 15-yard line that week.

Zastudil, Simon's top punter for Week 4, would have been a worthy choice this week as well.

"After placing a franchise-record six punts inside the 20-yard line in Arizona’s 38-10 win over the Detroit Lions, Zastudil needs to drop just five more inside the opponents’ red zone to have the most by any punter in a single season," Bob McManaman writes in the Arizona Republic. "The record for punts placed inside the 20 is 42 and it’s shared by three punters, including the Cardinals’ Ben Graham in 2009. Andy Lee of the 49ers also did it (2007), as did Steve Weatherford of the Jets (2010)."

Seattle's Jon Ryan has won Simon's award multiple times this season. St. Louis' Johnny Hekker is a one-time winner.

Kaepernick third NFC West QB honored

December, 19, 2012
Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson combined for eight total touchdowns in Week 15.

They have also recently combined for a couple NFL awards.

Kaepernick is the offensive player of the week for the NFC after tossing four touchdown passes during the San Francisco 49ers' 41-34 victory over New England.

Wilson, who won the award for his efforts against Chicago in Week 13, finished a 50-17 victory over Buffalo on Sunday as the first player in the Super Bowl era with at least one passing touchdown, three rushing touchdowns and 90 yards rushing in the same game.

Three NFC West quarterbacks have now won the weekly NFC award in 2012. The 49ers' Alex Smith won it after completing 18 of 19 passes with three touchdowns against Arizona in Week 8.

That makes 14 weekly award winners from the NFC West for offense, defense or special teams through Week 15. Wilson would have been a worthy winner in Week 15 as well, but racking up stats against the Bills isn't always enough. No 49ers player was honored after San Francisco set a franchise record with 621 yards against the Bills in Week 5.

Recapping NFC West honors to this point in the season:
  • Week 2: Arizona's Calais Campbell wins defensive honors.
  • Week 3: Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald wins offensive honors while Seattle's Chris Clemons wins defensive honors.
  • Week 4: San Francisco's Patrick Willis (defense) and St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein (special teams) win honors.
  • Week 5: St. Louis punter Johnny Hekker wins special-teams honors.
  • Week 7: San Francisco's Andy Lee wins special-teams honors.
  • Week 8: San Francisco's Smith wins offensive honors.
  • Week 10: Richard Sherman wins defensive honors.
  • Week 11: Aldon Smith wins defensive honors.
  • Week 12: Janoris Jenkins wins defensive honors.
  • Week 13: Greg Zuerlein (special teams) and Wilson (offense) win honors.
  • Week 15: Kaepernick wins offensive honors.
Note: The 49ers' Smith was also defensive player of the month for November.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 41, Patriots 34

December, 17, 2012

Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 41-34 victory over the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Week 15:

What it means: The 49ers clinched a playoff berth by improving to 10-3-1 with a critical road victory. They can win the NFC West title by winning one of their final two games, either at Seattle or against Arizona. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw an interception and had trouble with center exchanges, but his four touchdown passes played a leading role in the 49ers' victory. The 49ers' ability to strike quickly after blowing a 31-3 lead just might have saved their season.

What I liked: Kaepernick's early 24-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss gave the 49ers some margin for error on a night when wet conditions made it tougher to operate efficiently. Michael Crabtree topped 100 yards receiving. His 38-yard touchdown catch with 6:25 remaining broke a 31-31 tie and ended a streak of 28 consecutive points by the Patriots.

Kaepernick's four touchdown passes exceeded by one his total for the season before Sunday. The man he replaced, Alex Smith, never tossed more than three scoring passes in a game since San Francisco drafted him first overall in 2005. Kaepernick completed 14 of 25 passes for 216 yards with four touchdowns, one pick and a 107.7 NFL passer rating.

Defensively, Aldon Smith got pressure on Tom Brady early in the game. Ray McDonald had two sacks. He and Ricky Jean-Francois had sacks on consecutive fourth-quarter plays as the 49ers made a key stop while holding a 38-31 lead. Aldon Smith and Carlos Rogers each had an interception off Brady, who entered the game with only four all season.

Donte Whitner's big hit on Stevan Ridley forced out the football and set up Dashon Goldson's return deep into Patriots territory. Rogers played well against Patriots receiver Wes Welker, one key to building that 31-3 lead.

On special teams, Andy Lee changed field position significantly with a 64-yard punt in the fourth quarter. Rookie LaMichael James' 66-yard kickoff return following the Patriots' tying touchdown put the 49ers in position for Crabtree's go-ahead scoring reception. Lee pinned the Patriots at their 3-yard line in the final three minutes. His late punts proved critical as the 49ers scrambled to hold their lead without injured defensive end Justin Smith.

What I didn't like: The repeated problems with center exchanges had to be maddening for the 49ers. Those troubles could have cost San Francisco the victory. Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork was extremely disruptive on the interior. That was probably one reason Kaepernick and center Jonathan Goodwin had so much trouble.

Rogers' interception was terrific, but he failed to reach the end zone when Brady tackled him. That cost the 49ers points.

Kaepernick threw an interception on a first-and-5 play when he apparently did not see safety Devin McCourty closing from the back side of the play. The 49ers had driven from their own 30-yard line to the New England 33 on their first drive of the second half. They held a 17-3 lead and were in prime position to get more points. Fortunately for the 49ers, their defense produced Goldson's fumble return on the Patriots' ensuing possession.

Cornerback Chris Culliver gave up a 53-yard pass reception as the Patriots rallied in the fourth quarter.

Questions for Ginn: 49ers return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. nearly muffed a punt in the first half when he came dangerously close to touching a loose ball. He muffed a fourth-quarter punt return and was able to dive on the ball. The 49ers cannot tolerate those sorts of miscues given the similar troubles that cost them in the NFC title game last season. Perhaps the wet conditions were a factor. Whatever the case, the 49ers need Ginn to get back to his former sure-handed ways.

West takes Pats: The NFC West finished the 2012 season with a 3-1 record against the Patriots, including 2-0 at Gillette Stadium. Brady threw four touchdown passes with five picks in defeats to San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle. He attempted 65 passes Sunday and had a 68.9 NFL passer rating.

Injury concerns: Justin Smith tried to return from an elbow injury, but he lasted just one play and could not finish the game. Smith is one of the 49ers' most important players. That injury will be one to monitor closely as the 49ers prepare for Seattle.

What's next: The 49ers visit the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16.