- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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What it means: The 49ers improved to 11-3 and stayed just ahead of 11-3 New Orleans for the second seed in the NFC playoffs, based on a tiebreaker (superior conference record: 8-2 for the 49ers, 7-3 for the Saints). The top two seeds get first-round playoff byes and home games in the divisional round. By winning, the 49ers joined the Saints in keeping pressure on 13-1 Green Bay to continue winning. That could eventually help Seattle and Arizona; both teams' playoff chances would improve if Green Bay's Week 17 opponent, Detroit, lost its final two games. The 49ers' victory gave NFC West teams a 3-1 record outside the division in Week 15.
What I liked: The 49ers became the third team since Miami in 2007 to shut out the Steelers in a first half. Cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. Cornerback Tarell Brown picked one off late. Linebacker Larry Grant, subbing for Patrick Willis, leaped high to break up a pass. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith delivered a big hit on Roethlisberger late in the third quarter. The rookie later joined Ray McDonald in sacking Roethlisberger, forcing a fumble the 49ers recovered inside the Pittsburgh 20. That turnover set up the clinching touchdown run by Frank Gore. Smith collected 2.5 sacks overall, giving him 13 for the season. Quarterback Alex Smith took no sacks after absorbing 18 over the 49ers' previous three games. Later, with San Francisco leading 6-3 in the third quarter, Smith found tight end Vernon Davis for a 31-yard gain across midfield. The Steelers can be tough on opposing tight ends, and that was the case for much of this game. The 49ers stuck with it, got a little creative and found ways to get Davis open. Davis rewarded his team with the 31-yard reception over his shoulder, followed by a 21-yard reception to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line, followed by a 1-yard scoring reception and redemption in the red zone. Punter Andy Lee and the 49ers' coverage team repeatedly pinned the Steelers deep in their own territory, continuing a season-long trend.
What I didn't like: Two power outages delayed the game, an embarrassment for the 49ers and the NFL even if the problems weren't under their control. Terrible Towels waved throughout the stadium. Thousands of 49ers fans apparently sold their tickets. It's tough to begrudge a fan for collecting a fat payday every so often, but a 49ers team with a 10-3 record coming into the game was worthy of more partisan support. On the field, the Steelers found soft spots in the 49ers' coverage along the sidelines, getting the ball behind outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who appeared to have coverage on shorter routes. Goldson missed two tackles early in the game, leading to big plays for the Steelers. The 49ers settled for two first-half field goals, squandering drives that reached the Pittsburgh 4- and 20-yard lines. Gore's season-long issues with dropped passes continued. He entered the game with five drops on 26 targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Gore dropped two more passes in this game.
Red zone reversal: The 49ers had failed to score a touchdown on seven consecutive red zone possessions over a three-game period before Monday night. They settled for another red zone field goal early in this game, but two red zone touchdowns helped turn a 6-3 lead into a 20-3 runaway for the 49ers.
Rushing touchdown defense: The 49ers still have not allowed a rushing touchdown all season. Their streak dating to last season has spanned 15 games, matching the 1985-86 Chicago Bears for the longest streak since 1970. The 49ers already held the NFL single-season record since 1970. That streak is at 14, three more than the ones San Francisco and Cleveland strung together in 1992.
49ers injuries of note: Left tackle Joe Staley, questionable for this game after suffering a concussion, left this game with a leg injury. The 49ers listed his return as questionable. Return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. did not return after suffering an ankle injury when tackled awkwardly on the kickoff to open the second half. The 49ers listed his return as questionable. Willis missed the game with a hamstring injury.
Turnover margin key, again: The 49ers were plus-four in turnover margin against the Steelers. They are now plus-25 for the season, best in the NFL.
What's next: The 49ers visit the Seahawks in a game with NFC seeding implications for San Francisco. The Seahawks must win for any shot at keeping their playoff hopes alive.
1263dMichael C. Wright