How Each Potential Remaining Opponent Stacks Up vs. the 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers served notice to the rest of the National Football League on Saturday night. In a game that many "experts" predicted they would lose, the 49ers took the Green Bay Packers behind the woodshed, pounding the Packers in a much more emphatic fashion than the 45-31 final score indicates.
The 49ers were powered to that win by a phenomenal effort from second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who racked up nearly 450 total yards with four touchdowns and set an NFL record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback with an eye-popping 183.
The win propels the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game, where they will face the winner of Sunday's matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons with a trip to Super Bowl XLVII on the line.
So, as the 49ers begin preparations for that contest, we will as well by taking a look at each potential opponent the 49ers could face, their strengths and weaknesses and how they stack up against San Francisco.
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The Seattle Seahawks are not only NFC West rivals of the 49ers but also their mirror image, as both teams employ an option attack on offense and have defenses capable of completely shutting down their opponents.
Where the 49ers have Kaepernick, the Seahawks have Russell Wilson, who like Kaepernick runs the read option with ruthless efficiency and is every bit as capable of beating you with his legs as his arm.
Where the 49ers have running back Frank Gore, the Seahawks have Marshawn Lynch, who ranked second in the NFL with 1,590 yards in 2012.
While San Francisco's defense is powered by their linebackers, Seattle's relies on their talented secondary, where cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner and safety Earl Thomas have the size and skill to afford the Seahawks the luxury of playing man coverage, allowing the team to blitz without fear of being torched with regularity.
However, Seattle's run defense is far from porous, with middle linebacker Bobby Wagner powering a unit that ranked 10th in the NFL.
The two teams played twice this season, and while the 49ers won at home earlier this year, their last meeting was an emphatic Seattle win with the Seahawks dominating every facet of the game en route to a 42-13 victory.
They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and with these teams that's very much the case.
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The Atlanta Falcons are the NFC's top seed for the second time in three seasons, and should the Falcons outlast the Seahawks, the 49ers would travel to the Georgia Dome next week.
That means facing quarterback Matt Ryan and a talented corps of receivers that's as good as any in the NFL. With speedster Julio Jones as the deep threat, veteran Roddy White and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez provide Ryan with sure-handed options who always seem to be in the right spot at the right time.
The trio combined for over 3,000 receiving yards in 2012, and shutting down the Falcons means containing them.
Luckily for the 49ers, they have a linebacker in Patrick Willis who is one of the few players at his position in the NFL with the speed to actually cover Gonzalez, which gives San Francisco an extra alternative while game-planning and an "ace in the hole" of sorts.
Atlanta also possesses a solid defense, but they're not a dominant unit. A run defense that ranked 22nd in the NFL would have its hands full with San Francisco's option attack.
Given their choice of opponents, the 49ers would likely actually prefer Atlanta, even if it means going on the road.
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To be brutally honest I don't know why I'm even including the Houston Texans on this list, as given how the Texans have looked over the past month, I'd put their chances of beating both the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens to advance to Super Bowl XLVII at slim to none.
With that said, however, no one thought the Ravens would beat the Denver Broncos either. That's why they play the games.
The Texans are cut from a similar mold as the 49ers, with a powerful ground game and stout defense, but there are a couple of major differences that would give the 49ers an edge.
First, quarterback Matt Schaub is a standard "pocket" quarterback, and one who has struggled somewhat in the second half of the season. Take running back Arian Foster away, which San Francisco's fourth-ranked run defense is very capable of doing, and the Texans offense has a tendency to sputter.
Also, while defensive end J.J. Watt may be the most disruptive defensive player in the NFL and the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year after racking up 20.5 sacks in 2012, the middle of the defense has been hit hard by injuries and the secondary has been erratic.
Run the ball right at them, keep Watt under wraps and things will open up down the field.
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Linebacker Ray Lewis apparently isn't ready to hang them up just yet, as the Ravens rolled into Denver as 10-point underdogs and rolled out with a wild 38-35 double-overtime playoff win over Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Stopping the Ravens offensively means shutting down running back Ray Rice. While the Baltimore offense has the capability to be as explosive as any in the NFL, they have also struggled with consistency, especially in games where quarterback Joe Flacco has to put the team on his shoulders.
It's simple. Over his career, in games where Rice gets the ball 20 or more times, as he did against Denver, the Ravens are 20 games over .500. In games where he has less than 20 carries, they lose nearly as often as they win.
If San Francisco can put the clamps on Rice and prevent the big plays that were Denver's undoing by stopping burner Torrey Smith from getting open deep with help from safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, then Flacco will be forced to use short and intermediate passes to beat them, an area where he can be erratic.
The return of Lewis has been a godsend for the Baltimore defense, but this is still a team that's a far cry from the fearsome Ravens defenses of the past, due in part to age and in part to injuries that ravaged the team on that side of the ball this year.
If the 49ers and the Ravens were to meet in New Orleans, it would be a game in which the 49ers were significant favorites, and for good reason.
Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen, as the prohibitive favorites in the AFC are now the...
New England Patriots
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Yep, it's the Patriots...again.
The 49ers traveled to Foxborough back in Week 15, a game in which Kaepernick threw four touchdown passes and San Francisco survived a furious second-half comeback to emerge with a 41-34 victory.
The same things that propelled the 49ers to a win in that game are the ones that could land the team the Lombardi Trophy.
The 49ers enjoy a significant edge on defense. While the Patriots have improved somewhat in that regard, they remain susceptible to the pass, ranking 29th in the NFL in that regard.
However, the Patriots were a top-10 run defense in 2012, and a key to the game would be for the 49ers to contain defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and keep him from disrupting the power run game and option attack.
It's something of a different story on offense, and the issues that nearly allowed the Patriots to come back in December are still there.
The Patriots are as dynamic offensively as any team in the NFL, especially when they employ their no-huddle offense, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez present matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.
The key to slowing New England down is to do just that. Disrupt quarterback Tom Brady's rhythm with pressure and stop the team from getting into an offensive groove that allows them to run the hurry-up and wear down the defense.
There's also the experience factor.
Granted, Colin Kaepernick was outstanding in his first career playoff start, but the Super Bowl is a different animal. The pressure and distractions that go with playing in the game have rattled many players, including some of the best to ever play in the NFL.
Should Brady make it to the Superdome, it would be his record sixth Super Bowl, although he would face a different sort of pressure all his own after coming up short his last two tries.
As things stand today, given how the 49ers looked in dismantling Green Bay, a San Francisco-New England Super Bowl appears the most likely potential matchup.
At least I hope so, because that, much like their first meeting, would be one lulu of a football game.