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Grant Cohn: Every great one meets a Ken Norton, and 49ers will have theirs

  • Muhammad Ali won two of three bouts against Ken Norton, right, but he never could knock him out. (Associated Press)

Of the 49ers' remaining opponents, which ones have a defense that can cause problems for a 49ers' offense with a spotty passing game? That is the key question.

If a team can't stop Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin, that team can't beat the 49ers. But if a team has a good run defense and at least one good cornerback, now the 49ers are in a fight.

It's the Muhammad Ali Syndrome.

Ali could knock you out — he knocked out George Foreman — but Ali wasn't a devastating puncher. He wasn't a one-punch knockout fighter.

He had to work and take shots to beat inferior boxers, boxers Foreman put away early, no sweat.

In 39 rounds, Ali never put away Ken Norton. Norton broke Ali's jaw and won a split-decision the first fight, Ali won a split-decision the second fight and Ali won a 15-round decision the third fight. Foreman knocked out Norton in the second round.

Norton had a glass chin, so he couldn't stand in and trade shots against a puncher like Foreman. But Norton could trade shots with Ali, who lacked a killer punch just like the 49ers.

NFL teams with nothing going for them other than a good run defense and one good cornerback can trade shots with the 49ers. Those opponents are the 49ers' Ken Nortons. You saw it last weekend when the 49ers played the Cardinals.

The Cardinals are not a good team. Their quarterback, Carson Palmer, didn't mess around against the 49ers — he tried to give them the game right away. He took a sack in the end zone and threw two interceptions in the first half. But the 49ers still couldn't pull away from the Cardinals until the fourth quarter, after the Cardinals had committed their third turnover of the game.

The Cardinals' defense held Gore to 20 yards on 10 carries in the first half and cornerback Patrick Peterson held Boldin to three catches for 28 yards the entire game. The Cardinals trailed by two points late in the third quarter when they had the ball near the red zone and Larry Fitzgerald fumbled. If he hadn't fumbled, the Cardinals probably would have taken the lead.

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