EAST RUTHERFORD—Shot out of a cannon, head on fire, high-motor, playmaker; pick any, or all of these gridiron axioms, and you’ll have a pretty clear description of 49ers rookie linebacker Chris Borland.
In the midst of a 6-4 season, one in which San Francisco has never consistently looked like the team that rode a smothering defense, electric young quarterback, and indomitable young coach to three consecutive NFC championship games, one cornerstone of a clouded 49ers future announced himself to the tune of 13 tackles (2 for a loss) and a pair of interceptions.
Since replacing All-Pro Patrick Willis, Borland has proved a tackling machine, totaling 47 stops over 3 games, with Sunday’s performance in a 16-10 victory over the New York Giants serving as the exclamation point on the best defensive performance by a SF rookie since Willis himself entered the fold in 2007.
In the aftermath of a victory gifted by way of Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s five interceptions, most post-game debate focused on what exactly had become of the teams’ quarterbacks.
Manning, coming off a 2013 season in which he threw 27 interceptions to just 18 touchdowns, appears to have lost all of the mojo that helped him guide the Giants on improbable Super Bowl runs in 2007 and 2011.
On the other sideline, Kaepernick, whose NFL career began with a highlight-laden Super Bowl run of his own, led his offense to 16 points against a Giants defense that had surrendered 136 in its previous four games.
Kaepernick’s numbers weren’t awful, completing 15 of 29 passes for 193 yards, 48 of which came on a scoring strike to receiver Michael Crabtreee. In the end, it was enough to win a game where Manning was hitting Niners defenders between the numbers with regularity.
Even after throwing four interceptions, New York was in a position to win the game, trailing 16-10 with five minutes to play, Manning drove the Giants all the way to San Francisco four-yard-line.
In spite of Manning’s rough day under center, New York opted to throw consecutive fade routes to receivers Ruben Randle, Odell Beckham Jr., and tight-end Larry Donnell. The third, very nearly brought-in by the 6 foot and 6 inches Donnell, set-up a fourth and goal for the Giants.
For the fourth time, New York elected to pass, as Manning took the shotgun snap and tried forcing the ball to a well-covered Preston Parker. The pass, deflected by Niners defensive back Dontae Johnson, fell safely into the arms of Borland, whose number 50 jersey once more flew-in like a playmaking blur across the turf of MetLife Stadium.
The game-saving play allowed the Niners to hold-on to their six point lead, earning themselves a victory and control over their destiny in a ridiculously competitive NFC playoff race.
And while questions still linger over the futures of Kaepernick and head Coach John Harbaugh, whose relationship with team management is reported to be irreparably broken, at least one San Francisco player crystallized a long-lasting legacy of dominance at his position.
Niners fans, Chris Borland has arrived.