Garafolo’s Sunday Wrap: 49ers keep hope alive in OT thriller

Flopping is supposed to be a hot topic in the spring during the NBA playoffs. It is not usually an issue in the fall related to NFL games.

Sure, there are players who drop to the ground to fake an injury to stop the clock, such as former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who was fined for doing so a few years ago. And there’s the occasional stumble to exaggerate contact after the play, as Tom Brady did rather comedically recently.

But a player being accused of flopping during the course of a play, especially if it’s the last play of regulation in a tie game, is an extremely rare occurrence.

Until yesterday, when San Francisco 49ers cornerback Perrish Cox hit the deck after getting shoved in the back by New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham — an act the officials deemed illegal enough to negate what would’ve been a game-winning Hail Mary catch by Graham. The penalty sent the game into overtime, where the 49ers won on a field goal set up by a strip sack from linebacker Ahmad Brooks.

Cox’s flailing arms as he went to the ground led FOX analyst John Lynch, a former NFL safety who agreed with the penalty call, to dub it a "sales job" by Cox. Within minutes, bloggers and tweeters across Twitter and the Internet had accused Cox of taking a dive.

"Man, look here, that wasn’t a flop at all," Cox told FOX Sports by phone before he and his teammates headed to the airport for the flight home from New Orleans. "If they want to call it that, well, if he didn’t push me, it would’ve been an (interception). People can say what they want. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but we came out with the victory and that’s all that matters."

Graham’s opinion of the play was, well, different from Cox’s.

"It was definitely not a push-off," Graham told reporters after the game. "I was running down the field and I’m telling myself not to push off, just go up and get it. It’s interesting that guys grab me all over the field. I put two fingers on someone and I get it called against me."

Graham added: "That’s why I left basketball."

Football is a grown man’s sport. Just ask any of the grown men who play it. Diving is one of the worst sins one could commit, save for intentionally trying to hurt another player.

Cox was adamant he didn’t dive. Frankly, it wouldn’t make much sense for him to do so. Offensive pass interference, albeit an emphasis for officials this season, is a rare call, so banking on a flag in a spot like that is an unwise strategy. Even Graham admitted there’s usually much more contact allowed on a Hail Mary than the average play.

"I had no reason to flop," Cox said. "I think it was two refs that saw it. They saw what they saw. If you look at the play, you can see I was just about to jump. Right when I came off the ground, he pushed me pretty hard.

"I came down on my butt bone (coccyx) pretty hard, too. I’m all right, though."

Remarkably, so are the 49ers (5-4).

After everything that’s swirled around the team for months now, they’re just a game out of a playoff spot and remain three games behind the Arizona Cardinals, who just lost Carson Palmer for the season to a torn ACL and could now have trouble fending off the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West.

More importantly, the Niners won in a fashion that’s become familiar to them during their run of recent successful seasons. They came out of the gate running the ball on Sunday, with the first five plays being runs to Frank Gore for 23 yards and a touchdown. Gore and rookie running back Carlos Hyde combined to run on the final three plays of the team’s second touchdown drive. Just like that, they were up 14-0 and finding that "identity" Gore had suggested they find after last week’s loss to the St. Louis Rams.

As I reported in this space last week and on FOX Sports 1’s "America’s Pregame" this past Friday, the players have been making it clear to Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman they weren’t pleased with the pass-happy attack the coaches seemed determined to implement this year.

For one week, the coaches seemed to listen to their players, which is not something Harbaugh is often credited for doing. The 49ers’ 32 rushing attempts were their third-most this season.

"Our mindset was, we’ve got to win," said Colin Kaepernick, whose 32 passing attempts were the third-fewest he’s had all season (the Niners are 3-0 in those games). "And to do that we had to get the running game going."

They also needed the defense to come up big against the Saints’ dual attack. While the unit gave up 423 total yards, Drew Brees had to squeeze the ball instead of uncorking a few deep passes and held the ball long enough for Brooks to get to him in overtime.

"I was really surprised he (Brees) held the ball as long as he did," Brooks said. "I was rushing and turning the corner and thinking to myself, ‘Dang, is he going to throw the ball yet?’ But he didn’t, and I was able to make a play."

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Brooks made a play on Brees last year in the Superdome that seemed to seal a victory for the Niners. But a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty gave New Orleans new life and led to a victory for the Saints.

This time, as Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio put it, "poetic justice was served."

Cox said the 49ers’ coaching staff showed last year’s play to the team a few times last week.

"I jumped all over him," Cox said. "Somebody needed to make a play, and I’m glad it was him who did it. That was a great play."

It wouldn’t have happened if not for the flag on Graham at the end of regulation. FOX NFL rules expert Mike Pereira said it was a good call. So did Cox.

But just to confirm one more time: Not a flop?

"Not a flop, man," Cox said. "Not a flop."

SECURITY FOR PALMER, ALBERT

Though neither team has provided the extent of the injuries to Palmer and Miami Dolphins left tackle Branden Albert, sources have confirmed to FOX Sports initial tests on both players revealed season-ending knee injuries.

It’s a devastating blow for both, though it’s softened a bit by the contracts they signed this year — or, in Palmer’s case, within the past few days.

Had Palmer not signed a three-year extension on Friday, his future in Arizona and as an NFL starter would be more in doubt. But he now has $10.5 million in guaranteed money next season, which should secure his future as the Cardinals starter for at least one more season. And that’s really what it’s about for Palmer, who has made plenty of money over his career. It’s about the chance to continue as a starter with a team that’s given him a second life. With that much money scheduled for Palmer, it stands to reason the Cardinals will enter next offseason with him as their planned No. 1, though drafting a rookie remains a possibility.

As for Albert, he played on a one-year franchise tag last season with the Kansas City Chiefs before signing a five-year, $47 million deal with the Dolphins this spring. Had his injury occurred last year or the year before that, he’d have far less financial security than he does right now. Albert is set to receive $9 million in guaranteed money next year and will have $6 million of his 2016 salary guaranteed at the start of that league year.

Football-wise, both injuries are huge losses for the teams. But from a personal standpoint, they could have been worse for each player.

QUICK THOUGHTS

1. Say this for Drew Stanton: He’s certainly waited for an opportunity like the one in front of him right now. Stanton has backed up three No. 1 overall picks in his career — Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck and Palmer — so it’s not like he’s ever had any illusions of being in a serious competition for the starting job. That’s allowed him to develop as a career backup and a guy who helps the starter prepare. Now it’s time to see whether all of those years of serving as a study buddy will pay off. "Everywhere he’s been, his opportunity has been doused," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "But we have total faith in Drew." Stanton has only seven career starts. He’s never thrown for more than a 60-percent completion rate in his limited seasons. He was not a No. 1 overall pick like his teammates. The bottom line is the Cardinals’ postseason hopes will rest more on their excellent defense than their quarterback. If the defense keeps playing the way it has been, the Cards will be able to get by with Stanton.

2. There was a report Sunday morning stating 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith wasn’t reinstated early because he didn’t fulfill the counseling requirements in his suspension agreement. NFL Players Association executive vice president for external affairs George Atallah wrote in an email to FOX Sports on Sunday: "Aldon fulfilled all of his obligations to be considered to return from his suspension early. The NFL chose not to make that decision." Expect to hear more on this issue in the coming days because Smith’s camp and the NFLPA are not pleased Smith wasn’t reinstated and are now doubly aggravated the allegations he didn’t abide by the terms of the agreement were made public. That’s not to allege the league was behind Sunday’s report; rather, it’s to say the union and Smith’s camp are intent on defending him as he’s about to return to the team.

3. How long will it be before NFL teams start demanding coaches sign non-guaranteed contracts? Marc Trestman is halfway through a four-year deal and is now most definitely on the hot seat after Sunday night’s embarrassing loss to the Green Bay Packers. Dennis Allen barely made it past the two-year mark with the Oakland Raiders. And the Cleveland Browns were quick on the trigger with their previous two coaches before hiring Mike Pettine. This offseason, Rex Ryan signed a non-guaranteed extension to remain the coach of the New York Jets and many thought it would be the start of a trend for paying unproven coaches (e.g., Trestman, who had been out of the NFL for eight years before the Bears hired him) or those just barely hanging on to their jobs. With as quickly as coaches are put on notice these days, one has to wonder if teams will begin to force coaches into deals closer to the ones the players sign whenever they can.

4. For all of the tape coaches study in advance of games and seasons, sometimes a coach’s tendencies go unnoticed enough for them to succeed in a big spot. One of those spots came Sunday when the Chiefs ran a fourth-and-one pitch to Jamaal Charles, who took it 39 yards for a key touchdown that sparked Kansas City’s fourth-quarter comeback win over the Buffalo Bills. Had the Bills gone back far enough to 2010 and remembered then-Eagles coach Andy Reid wasn’t afraid to pitch the ball to LeSean McCoy on a fourth-and-inches from midfield in a 2010 victory over the New York Giants, they would have been ready for Charles to get the ball in that spot. But Reid dialed up a gutsy and beautiful play call on Sunday, forcing the Bills to respect fullback Anthony Sherman on the fake dive and leaving Charles, a shifty runner much like McCoy, to make a play in space.

5. I’ve spent a lot of time in Denver over the past two seasons, and every time I’m out there I spend at least a few minutes speaking to Broncos running back C.J. Anderson. An undrafted free agent last year, Anderson was one of the most impatient players I’d been around. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. He believed he was good enough to play from the jump last year, even in a backfield that was led by veteran Knowshon Moreno and had promising youngsters Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball. This year, with Moreno in Miami, Anderson was growing even more impatient. It was actually funny to hear him groan about his lack of carries just a few weeks ago when I was there to cover the Broncos’ games against the 49ers and the San Diego Chargers. On Sunday, Anderson finally got his big chance, and he turned a career-high 17 touches into 163 total yards and a touchdown – a 51-yard swing pass Anderson turned into a score with outstanding open-field running. "That’s as fine a play as I’ve seen all season," Peyton Manning said.

TEN EVEN QUICKER THOUGHTS

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: They’re on pace to be the first team in the common NFL era (1967 and beyond) to draft in the top 10 in eight consecutive seasons. They knew the rebuilding would continue this year, but they expected to be better than 1-9.

2. Marshawn Lynch: That offense still runs only as well as he does. It’s safe to say he’s belatedly picked up more supporters for his training-camp holdout.

3. Oakland Raiders: Among the many things they need to fix is their running game. They had 30 yards in Sunday’s loss to the Broncos. They’ve also had games with 25, 37, 53 and 56 yards rushing this year. That’s terrible, and it’s no way to get a read on your young quarterback, either.

4. Matthew Stafford: When criticizing him for his ugly sidearm incompletions going forward, let’s keep in mind he threw a sidearm dart for a game-winning touchdown on Sunday.

5. Jordy Nelson: One of the best in the game at stopping and cutting across the field to finish off his catch-and-runs. When he crosses the field like he did early in last night’s blowout of the Bears, look out.

6. John Harbaugh: OK, so he got caught on tape talking trash about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Big deal. Instead of blaming the broadcast crew, just move on. Don’t even apologize. It’s football. Move on.

7. Chris Hogan: One of the undertold stories of the NFL this season, the former college lacrosse player and current Buffalo Bills wide receiver has five receptions in three of his last four games and caught his second touchdown of the season on Sunday.

8. Michael Vick: He’s right to say the New York Jets would’ve been better with him as the starter, though that might have only masked the major issues this team has.

9. Justin Forsett: The Ravens’ running back is averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He’s had three previous seasons with an average of over 5 yards per attempt, though this year he’s doing it as a No. 1 running back. Keeping up that production over a career-high 133 carries proves he’s one of the underrated dynamic backs in this league.

10. Adrian Peterson: As we reported this morning, the NFLPA will try to get him on the field by next Sunday. That just doesn’t seem likely, though this week should be interesting. Stay tuned.