San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh thinks last weekend's overtime loss will be a good test for his team.
Harbaugh has to like his club's chances of a rebounding victory this Sunday as the 49ers play host to the struggling Miami Dolphins.
San Francisco carried a five-game unbeaten streak into last week's meeting with the hosting St. Louis Rams, a club that had tied the NFC West leaders back on Nov. 11. Sunday's rematch again went into overtime, but this time the Rams were able to kick themselves to a 16-13 win and hand the Niners their first loss since Oct. 14 versus the New York Giants.
Like the tie in San Francisco, kicker David Akers had a chance to give his team the win, but pushed a 51-yard field goal try in overtime just wide right.
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein, who hit a 53-yard field goal as time expired in the fourth quarter, was later true on a 54-yard attempt with 26 seconds left in overtime.
"This was a tough one," said Harbaugh, "we are going to have to bounce back very quickly. It was a football fight, and we did not win. This will test us, it tests our character as a team and the way our team competes and fights and plays with the effort that they do, I feel good about our guys and our character."
Making his third straight start in place of Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick threw for 208 yards and ran for another 84 on nine carries, including a big 50- yarder, but was also flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone during the third quarter to hand the Rams two points before later botching a pitch attempt that resulted in a two-yard fumble return for a score by St. Louis.
"I gave up those points that are on the scoreboard for the Rams. It's 100- percent my fault," said Kaepernick. "There were plays that happened that I shouldn't have let happen."
Kaepernick took over in relief for a concussed Smith in the first meeting with the Rams this season and has since replaced him as the starter. He is expected to be under center again this weekend.
San Francisco's second-year quarterback will face a Miami defense that gave a spirited effort last weekend versus the New England Patriots that still resulted in a 23-16 loss.
The Dolphins logged four sacks, forced New England quarterback Tom Brady into a rare interception and limited the Pats to just two first downs in the third quarter. However, the offense had to settle for four field goals in addition to quarterback Ryan Tannehill's two-yard TD run in the second quarter.
"We've got to play better. To be a good opponent in December, you have to play better. We can't make excuses. We made too many mistakes. They made plays when they had to. It was a team loss," noted Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin.
Miami's offense registered just 277 yards of offense and Tannehill completed only 13-of-29 pass attempts. The quarterback lost his steady left tackle Jake Long to a left triceps injury in the first half and the former Pro Bowl offensive lineman was placed on injured reserve this week.
The Dolphins have lost four of their last five to fall two games under .500.
Miami does own a slight 6-5 advantage in the all-time series with San Francisco, which does include a loss in Super Bowl XIX.
The Dolphins have won the past two meetings, a Nov. 28, 2004 matchup in San Francisco ahead of the most recent encounter on Dec. 14, 2008 in Miami.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Harbaugh said that his club needs to bounce back quickly and that is especially true of Kaepernick, who picked up his first loss as a starter and faces a defense that should have plenty of confidence after what it did to Brady.
Miami's 27th-ranked pass defense held Brady to just 238 yards on 24-of-40 pass attempts, though it did fail to have an answer for New England's two big receiving threats in wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Still, the Dolphins ended Brady's string of consecutive passes without an interception at 201 when safety Reshad Jones picked him off for Miami's first takeaway since Oct. 28 versus the New York Jets.
Defensive end Cameron Wake also had one of four sacks and now has 38 1/2 for his career. Jones also ended with a sack and made 10 tackles as Miami held New England to 108 yards rushing.
It was a far from perfect effort from the unit, though. New England was able to string together a seven-plus minute drive late in the fourth and Jones actually returned his interception for a touchdown, but the score was negated by a low-block penalty.
"There are no moral victories, we lost the game," said Jones. "I mean we played well on defense, but at the end of the day it is still a loss we got to get back and watch the film and correct the things we did make mistakes on."
Which unit makes the first mistake could decide this game. Will it be Miami's 20th-rankned defense or San Francisco's 11th-ranked offense led by the young Kaepernick.
Kaepernick was the toast of the town following wins in his first two NFL starts, but those were also the first two of his career and he won't be prone to committing miscues. Still, Harbaugh saw enough from him to keep him as the starter over the steady Smith.
"I thought he made some very clutch plays," noted the Niners head coach. "He was under some pressure, some backed up field position and he made some outstanding plays. It was a tough game for a quarterback to play in. I thought he did well."
Having the league's second-ranked run game also helps, and though running back Frank Gore managed just 58 yards on 23 carries, he did score his 49th career touchdown. That has him one behind running backs Joe Perry and Roger Craig for the most in franchise history.
Niners linebacker Aldon Smith recorded his league-leading 17 1/2 sack of the season last weekend, tying Hall of Fame defensive end Fred Dean for the club's single-season record. Smith's 31 1/2 career sacks surpassed Reggie White for the most all-time by a player over the first two years of their career.
Aldon Smith's ability to get to the passer should be a concern for the Dolphins given they will be without Long. A Pro Bowl selection in each of his first four NFL seasons, Long was replaced at left tackle by Jonathan Martin, who came over from the right side. Nate Garner came off the bench to replace Martin at right tackle.
"I think he responded well. Making a big shift like that during a game is stressful," guard Richie Incognito said of Martin. "But, you know, he came in and played well. We got things communicated real well and I think he made the transition real well."
Harbaugh, meanwhile, has to have some concerns about Akers, a six-time Pro Bowler who matched an NFL record this season for the longest kick (63 yards) but is just 7-for-15 from 40 yards or longer this season, including 1-for-5 from beyond 50 yards.
San Francisco did work out a pair of kickers last week due to a pelvis injury for Akers, but Harbaugh expects his kicker to be out there this weekend.
"We'll see what his health status is this week, but all indications are, he's working through something, but he's kicked well in practice," said Harbaugh. "He's kicked well in game. I thought the one that he hit in the ball game that was missed was well hit. It just didn't go in."
The Dolphins are beginning to fade from the playoff picture and the 49ers will be hoping to avoid a similar slide in their quest for a division title with another loss this weekend. San Francisco has yet to lose consecutive games in 2012, but still owns just a slim margin over the Seattle Seahawks for first place in the NFC West.
This will be a good test for Kaepernick and San Francisco's offense, which relies on its second-ranked ground game but faces a Dolphins team that yields less than 100 yards per game on the ground.
Kaepernick and his receiving core of Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Randy Moss will have to win this one.
For the Dolphins, don't underestimate how big of a loss Long is. His absence will affect how the offense is run and trying to change things on the fly will be difficult against such a high-energy defense that defines the Niners.
"We have to continue to fight because anything is possible. We'll go out next week, continue to fight, and try to get a win," declared Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby.
It probably won't happen this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 17, Dolphins 13