San Francisco 49ers: Alex Smith and 5 Players Who Will Take 49ers to Super Bowl
The San Francisco 49ers now sit as improbable favorites in the NFC. Alex Smith and Patrick Willis, along with a few supporting characters, will lead Jim Harbaugh's Niners to the Super Bowl.
After the New York Giants' surprising upset of the Green Bay Packers, the road to the NFC's bid to the Super Bowl has been re-routed through San Francisco. Somehow, this team that only squeaked out six wins last season is now hosting a conference title game.
Harbaugh deserves a lot of the credit, but don't overlook the efforts of the players on the field.
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Alex Smith isn't the most talented quarterback left in the playoffs, but he doesn't have to be.
Truthfully, though Smith has posted the best season of his career, he really hasn't gotten that much better. His completion percentage is only slightly better than his previous career high, as is his yards per pass attempt.
The biggest difference about Smith this season has been the bad, rather than the good. Smith threw just five picks during the regular season, half as many as he'd thrown in any of his previous seasons as a full-time starter.
In fact, Smith's 2011 ranks as one of the most careful quarterbacking seasons of all time. He was intercepted on just 1.1 percent of his pass attempts, which led the league and ranks fifth-best all time.
He may not take the Niners to the Super Bowl by himself, but he certainly won't send them home either.
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Carlos Rogers has the pedigree of a first round pick, but that talent has only recently begun to translate to his performance on the field.
This season, Rogers' first in San Francisco, has been by far the best of his career. He tied for fourth in the NFL with 6 interceptions. Prior to this season, Rogers had only eight career picks, and had never had more than two in a single season.
He finished seventh in the league with 18 passes defensed, proving that his uptick in picks wasn't a fluke.
The addition of Rogers has given a defense that was already stout against the run a corner that can effectively shut down one side of the field.
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Patrick Willis is Ray Lewis without the name recognition and pregame histrionics. He doesn't show as much outward emotion as the leader of the Ravens defense, but Willis is every bit as talented as Lewis.
Had he not missed three games with a hamstring injury, Willis would have made it five consecutive seasons with at least 100 tackles. As it is, Willis finished the season second on his team with 74 stops and set a career high with four forced fumbles.
He is the most important interior cog on one of the best run defenses in NFL history. San Francisco limited its opponents to a league-best 77.3 rush yards per game during the regular season and didn't allow a rushing touchdown until Week 17.
That trend has continued into the playoffs, where the Niners limited the New Orleans Saints to only 37 yards on the ground.
Willis, as usual, was right in the middle of things, recording eight solo tackles.
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Justin Smith 's presence allows players like Patrick Willis and Carlos Rogers to excel on defense.
Smith is the ideal 3-4 defensive end; a unique type of defensive lineman that can be both a space-eater and a disruptor, depending on the situation.
Smith has been a starter in the NFL since his rookie year in 2001, but Saturday's win over the New Orleans Saints was his first taste of the playoffs. If his performance in that game is any indication, he's going to cause some major problems for the New York Giants in the NFC Championship.
Smith was completely unblockable in the second half against New Orleans. On one key third down play, Smith shoved his blocker all the way back into Drew Brees, grabbed Brees' jersey with one hand and dragged both lineman and quarterback to the ground.
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The 49ers don't create a lot of mismatches for opposing defenses. Most of San Francisco's offensive contributors fit familiar formulas:
Frank Gore is a pounder. He's going to grind out yards between the tackles, but a sharp group of linebackers can contain him.
Ted Ginn is a speedster. He might get loose once, but a physical corner can pretty easily knock him off stride.
Michael Crabtree is a possession receiver. He'll get the majority of the looks from Alex Smith, but a sure tackling secondary can keep him under control.
But then there's Vernon Davis. He defies categorization. When he has his head on straight, he can be both a security blanket and a downfield threat.
He is one of the elder statesmen of the league's current crop of history-altering tight ends. More so than any 49er, Davis is capable of taking over a game on offense.
He did so against the Saints, catching seven passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. If he does it again next week, the Niners will be heading to Indianapolis.