SANTA CLARA -#8212; Still vying for playoff seeding in the final week of the regular season, the 49ers got the ball with 29 seconds left at Arizona, the Cardinals having just tied the game at 20-20. San Francisco went 47 yards in three crisp plays and finished with a game-winning 40-yard field goal by Phil Dawson as time expired.
At Green Bay last Sunday, the 49ers got the ball with 12:06 left, the Packers having just taken a 17-13 lead at frosty Lambeau Field. They went 58 yards in just four plays (helped by one Green Bay penalty), and Colin Kaepernick capped the possession with a 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis, a crucial swing in what turned out to be another 23-20 victory for the Niners.
Both of those important drives ended in points for the 49ers. Easier to forget is how they started -#8212; with excellent kickoff returns by LaMichael James.
James caught the Arizona kickoff 5 yards deep in the end zone and brought it back to the San Francisco 36. He fielded the Packers kick at the goal line and returned it to the 37, where he was pushed out of bounds by kicker Mason Crosby. James gave the 49ers a couple of nudges when they were most needed.
"A very admirable job on Sunday," Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh enthused earlier this week, referring to James' work at Green Bay. "A blue-collar effort on his part. Catching the ball in the elements and the wind and the factors that were there. I thought he did a great job. ... He was rock solid."
The 49ers are looking for similar results this Sunday when they travel to Carolina to face the Panthers in an NFC divisional playoff game.
Early this season, the 49ers seemed less thrilled with James' abilities. He was inactive for six of his team's first eight games. James returned just one kickoff, and no punts, over the first half of the schedule. The man who finished third in the 2010 Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore at Oregon (and 10th as a junior) was buried on the Niners' depth chart.
"I'll be honest about it. You know it's tough," James said this week. "Nobody wants to sit on the sidelines, especially when they feel like they can go out there and compete with anybody. I always felt like it wasn't my athletic ability. It's probably just a numbers game. But obviously I want to be out there with my teammates and contributing to the team."
James made it clear he didn't hold a grudge against 49ers special teams coordinator Brad Seely. In fact, James thanked Seely for his support and called the coach "probably one of my favorite guys here."
During his dark hour, James also fell back on the advice of Gary Campbell, his running backs coach at Oregon and one of his professional mentors.