When a good team loses to a bad team, it raises red flags, like early in the season when the horrible Rams marched all over the Saints. Turns out, though, that loss was just an aberration. The Saints really are good.
How about the 49ers, the big success story of the season? Despite being a solid favorite, they laid an egg Sunday in Arizona, losing 21-19. Not only are the Cardinals a bad team, but they were led by an obscure backup QB, John Skelton. This nobody, howled Niner fans, beat the Niners? He certainly did. In the second half, Skelton, who began the game with a puny 57.3 passer rating, turned into Tom Brady, using a sharp passing attack to turn a 19-7 deficit into a 21-19 victory.
Does this loss mean the bubble has burst, that the Niners are sinking back into medocrity, that the clock has struck midnight and QB Alex Smith's Cinderella days are over? Here are the reasons why it's probably not doomsday for the Niners.
First of all, this could be just a normal letdown game. Last week, the Niners did cinch a playoff spot, so their intensity level would naturally drop a bit, which was evident in the fourth quarter, when they blew the game. Also, the law of averages might have finally caught up with them. They were overdue for a stinker. They haven't really had one this season. Those losses to Dallas and Baltimore don't really qualify.
Clearly, in the Arizona game, the defense, which uncharacteristically failed down the stretch, was a problem. It wasn't its same old swarming, killer self. That's at least partly because its leader, LB Patrick Willis, was out with a hamstring pull, missing only the second game of his career. Without him, the defense, with replacement Larry Grant, loses some punch.
The Niner offense wasn't the same either--on purpose. With an eye to the playoffs, trying to show teams they can do more than run, coach Jim Harbaugh experimented was a pass-first offense, limiting his primaary weapon, RB Frank Gore, to just 10 carries. The experiment wasn't a big success. Against a weak pass defense, Smith was just 18 for 37, for 175 yards and was alarmingly off target all day. In the next few games, look for the Niners to continue to try to polish their passing.
The negative buzz from the skeptics may continue after Monday night's game against Pittsburgh, which could be another loss. If Smith had trouble against the Cardinals' defense, imagine his frustrations trying to penetrate that steel-curtain pass defense. In the Niners' favor, though, is that Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger's sprained ankle may keep him out of the game.
So losing to the lowly Cardinals doesn't necessarily mean the 49ers are regressing. It probably just means their foot is off the gas pedal and, with the regular season in the rear view mirror, they're in cruise control and the focus is just on what's up ahead--the playoffs.