The Beatles say, “you get by with a little help from your friends,” and the motto was certainly true for the 49ers on Sunday.
The 49ers (11-4-1) limped into the 2012 playoffs with an underwhelming 27-13 win over the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park in Week 17. Still, the team is entering the second season in the same position it held one year ago — as the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a first-round bye — because the Minnesota Vikings knocked off the Green Bay Packers with a last-second field goal at Mall of America Field in Minneapolis.
On the ticker, the victory that clinched the 49ers’ second straight NFC West division title looks respectable. But the game didn’t exactly mollify the worries that surfaced in last week’s 42-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
The biggest question right now is whether the 49ers’ defense is still among the NFL’s best when “The Cowboy” isn’t roping and riding with the rest of the unit. Justin Smith might be the best run-stopping lineman in the league.
Heading into Sunday’s game, the 49ers ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (86.7) over the past two seasons and without Smith last week they were gashed for 176 yards on the ground. The defense held the Cardinals to 55 rushing yards on Sunday, but statistics don’t always paint a complete picture.
Here’s the alarming part: William Powell picked up 53 of those yards in the first half. The Cardinals only carried the ball twice in the second half as the 49ers built a lead, forcing the Cardinals to pass the ball. It might seem nitpicky, but it’s fair to question whether the rushing defense can hold up against a running back like Alfred Morris or in a rematch against Marshawn Lynch when Powell is breaking free for 9-yard gains.
“The Cowboy’s” absence up front is also blunting Aldon Smith’s influence as a pass rusher on the right side. With three games to play, Aldon Smith was only three sacks short of tying Michael Strahan’s single-season record. But without Smith to tie up the offensive line, he recorded a grand total of zero sacks in the last three weeks after picking up 15 in his previous seven games.
At this point, “The Cowboy” is determined to return for the playoffs, but can he possibly be as effective with a tear in his left triceps?
The David Akers problem is also growing dire. Akers missed wide left on his first two field -oal attempts Sunday, 44- and 40-yard tries, shots that were automatic last season. Apologies for assuming the role of Captain Obvious here, but you can’t win close games in January if your kicker is hitting only 50 percent of his tries.
If the 49ers received some good news against the Cardinals, it’s that the passing game looked smooth despite the loss of Mario Manningham. Colin Kaepernick threw for a career-high 276 yards and he had a field day with top-target Michael Crabtree, who picked up 172 yards on eight catches.
But putting up points on a Cardinals team that lost 11 of its last 12 games doesn’t negate the concerns hovering over the 49ers heading into January. In the playoffs, they won’t have any friends to lean on.
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.