Times they are a changin’, to quote the famous Bob Dylan song. It was 30 years ago when the upstart 49ers rose from football purgatory and slayed their longtime nemesis, the mighty Dallas Cowboys, en route to their first Super Bowl victory.
It was the beginning of one of the greatest dynasties in sports. Four more championships and 14 division titles later, the 49ers lost their golden boy, Eddie DeBartolo, and regressed into a decade long hibernation.
But alas, the sleeping giant has been awakened. The same 49ers team that went 6-10 last year is now readying themselves for a run at postseason glory as they take on the high-flying Saints on Saturday. How fortunate is it for the 49ers faithful to see their team start the playoffs against one of the most prolific offenses of all time?
Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t have it any other way.
The 49ers’ fiery coach thrives on competition and a thirst to humiliate his detractors. His competitive drive and spirit has been infectious this season, spreading to every aspect of his team resulting in a 100 percent effort every week.
Carlos Rogers, David Akers, Dashon Goldson and NaVorro Bowman are all having career years and dominating at a level that no one could have fathomed before the start of the September.
But now the question remains: Can this 49ers franchise shake off the rust of postseason inexperience and play like a champion? Can their impregnable front seven stymie the New Orleans’ run attack, and more importantly, can the hard-hitting secondary lock down the Saints receivers that love running all around the field?
Methinks they can.
The more I look at the 49ers, the more I’m reminded of the New England Patriot teams that won three Super Bowls. This may sound absurd, but the similarities say otherwise.
Both teams rely on stellar defensive play, a mediocre game-managing quarterback and a coach who wins at any cost.
The second one might come as a shock to some people since the unholy words “mediocre” and “game manager” just aren’t synonymous with Tom Brady. But believe it or not, Brady was a facilitator before he was a gun slinger, and as crazy as it sounds, Patriots fans are missing the days where Tom Terrific threw for merely 3,000 yards and 20 or so touchdowns in a season.
It was during those days that quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner were putting up ridiculous passing numbers and shattering records with frightening ease. But whenever the two faced Tom Brady in the playoffs, the results were always the same:
Have a nice offseason.
The Brady vs. Manning duels were especially entertaining given how the Patriots were inexplicably able to neutralize all of the weapons Indianapolis had on the field. A lot of that had to do with defensive savant Bill Belichick and his jujitsu-like ability to topple opponents using their own momentum.
Jim Harbaugh and his team have taken on a similar approach, as they lead the league in forced turnovers (37) while only committing 10 of their own (tying an NFL record). Quarterbacks have consistently thrown everything they’ve had against them all season (Michael Vick totaled 491 yards in Week 2, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 315 yards in Week 3, and Matt Stafford also hit the three century mark in Week 5), and they’ve responded by lifting the red cape and letting their opponents charge straight into the boulder behind it.
Harbaugh also possesses Belichick’s grind it out philosophy, keeping teams at bay with his defense and allowing timely plays by Alex Smith, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis to be the difference on the scoreboard. The only difference is Belichick and the Patriots would often play to get Tom Brady the final possession. Harbaugh prefers to have his defense finish the game on the field, which has been the reason for some of the rare losses on the season.
It’s also made for some pretty tantalizing football over the past three months, which might actually work in favor for the 49ers as they prepare for the brutal road ahead.
When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, they were doing it against some of the best teams in the league: the 15-1 Steelers, the Greatest Show on Turf Rams, the Donovan McNabb-Terrell Owens led Eagles, etc... After enduring a 16-game regular-season wrought with comebacks, shootouts and overtime thrillers, they were more than prepared for the challenges of a grueling postseason.
This was a big reason why they were so easily able to diffuse the Colts’ explosive offense. While Indianapolis slaughtered inferior defenses leading up to their showdown with New England, the Patriots’ were pushed to the limit by each of the teams they faced in the playoffs.
During the 2004 postseason, the Colts scored 79 points in their first two rounds without registering a single punt. Then against the Patriots, Indianapolis scored just 14 points, as Manning was sacked four times and threw four interceptions.
The 49ers find themselves in a similar situation against an equally armed and dangerous Saints team. While New Orleans has been on a rampage lately—winning eight straight games and outscoring their opponents 260-134—the 49ers have strengthened their resolve with a number of hard fought victories down the stretch to secure the first-round bye and home-field advantage.
The football world has already placed their bets on the Saints because they play a much sexier brand of football.
Who can blame them? It’s hard not to be impressed with Drew Brees' ability to sling passes accurately in the pocket (even if he takes about 15 steps back after the snap) or New Orleans' knack of scoring a touchdown from almost anywhere on the field.
But while the Saints have dominion over the air, the 49ers hold the advantage in every other aspect of the game, including defense, the running game and special teams.
The stats are also a little deceptive. While the 49ers are ranked 16th against the pass, they’re eighth in completion percentage while facing the 10th most attempts per game. Teams have figured out that they can’t run against this defense, so they try to fire the ball downfield on every play and often complete it to the wrong receiver.
It’s why San Francisco has 23 interceptions for the season and will likely add a few more to that total this Saturday.
And unlike Detroit, when the Saints hit an open receiver, there’ll be someone there to tackle him.
Alex Smith and the offense won’t be looking to engage in a shootout. Instead they’ll outsmart the Saints' porous defense by pounding them with their running backs and airing it down the field when the time is right.
If there’s anything we learned from watching the 49ers this season, it's that Jim always has a few surprises up his sleeve. So look for Iupati to make a couple of catches in the end zone and Andy Lee to line up in the slot against the New Orleans secondary.
They'll eventually have to double team him too.
The main concern for the 49ers this season has been their inability to score TDs in the red zone and putting away their opposition. They need to do both to beat New Orleans on Saturday. A quarterback as good as Drew Brees can’t be given the ball late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. David Akers also can’t be asked to single-handedly outscore the Saints offense.
Three points is four less than seven. Pinning a punt at the 1-yard line isn't as good as getting a first down and running out the clock to end the game.
Fans shouldn't be too worried though. Jim isn't the type to hold anything back when teams are in a fetal position.