The San Francisco 49ers are finally NFC champions again.
After an incredible 13-3 season in 2011, the 49ers fell just shy of Super Bowl XLVI. Former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith's redemption story ended one chapter short, as head coach Jim Harbaugh learned he couldn't yet outcoach the entire NFL.
This season, the 49ers faced a much tougher task. They had upheaval at the quarterback position and had to overcome much stiffer competition from their NFC West rivals. They took a small step back with an 11-4-1 record, and they finished just a half-game ahead of the suddenly strong Seattle Seahawks.
But the 49ers haven't lost anything from last season. They were one of the best teams in the NFL from wire to wire. They do everything well—and a few things better than any other team on the planet.
There can be no argument: Harbaugh and his fiery band of athletes have proven they deserve this shot to add another Lombardi Trophy to the 49ers' massive collection of hardware.
How They've Performed
This chart shows the 49ers' Pro Football Focus grades over the course of the regular season, along with the NFL average in each category:
Pro Football Focus grades each player on every play. The season grades aren't gospel, but they are an excellent portrait of a team's strengths and weaknesses.
According to PFF, the 49ers didn't have weaknesses in 2012. They had major strengths and average strengths. They had the No. 1 overall offense, ninth-best passing attack, fourth-best running game, 10th-best pass protection (28.5) and by far the best run-blocking in the NFL. The offense's penalty rate was 18th.
The 49ers defense was outstanding as well. Also according to PFF, it was No. 1 overall, No. 1 against the run and No. 4 against the pass. Only its pass rush and penalty rate were not elite, finishing 18th in pass rush and 20th in penalties.
On offense, the 49ers spent most of the season running what college football observers now call a "pro-style" offense. They often run two- and three-receiver sets, in combination with one or two tight ends and/or a fullback. Their power running game and the scrambling ability of their quarterbacks kept defenses honest enough to open up the intermediate and deep passing game.
In the playoffs, though, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman has deployed the Pistol more frequently. Created by former University of Nevada head coach Chris Ault, the Pistol uses a shallow shotgun snap with running backs directly behind and/or beside the quarterback.
Here's an example of the 49ers using the Pistol formation:
The short distances and right angles in the alignment make it harder for the defense to see what's happening in the backfield before the snap. Furthermore, the defense has less time to react once a handoff or play fake occurs.
On defense, the 49ers use a 3-4 alignment. However, they don't use the traditional two-gap 3-4 alignment, where each defensive lineman is responsible for controlling two running lanes.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio uses a one-gap variant of the 3-4, which allows for more pass-rushing from the defensive linemen but requires bigger linebackers who can take on blocks in the run game. Fortunately for the 49ers, they have the personnel to make that work.
Who They Are
San Francisco's linebacker corps features several special players, but the best (and arguably best linebacker in the game) is Patrick Willis.
The 6'1", 242-pound inside linebacker was the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft out of Ole Miss. In his six seasons in the NFL, he's made six Pro Bowls and been named first-team All-Pro five times.
According to Pro Football Focus' tackle numbers (which are different, and typically more accurate, than official NFL tackle stats), Willis had 109 tackles and 18 assists, with only five missed tackles. Willis led all inside/middle linebackers in PFF's overall and coverage grades, and he finished second in run-stopping.
The outstanding 49ers offensive line is anchored by left tackle Joe Staley. Tall and agile at 6'6" and 306 pounds, the 49ers were lucky to pick up the former Central Michigan standout with the 28th pick in the '07 draft as well.
Staley was first named to the Pro Bowl after the 2011 season and was again named to the Pro Bowl this season. PFF graded Staley No. 1 among all left tackles. He was only 14th in pass-blocking, but was by far PFF's best run-blocker, finishing well ahead of teammate Anthony Davis, who finished second.
Back on the other side of the ball, defensive end Justin Smith has been the biggest reason the 49ers' one-gap 3-4 works.
As a traditional two-gap 3-4 end, Smith couldn't rush the passer. As a traditional 4-3 defensive end, where he played with the Cincinnati Bengals, he wasn't quite fast enough to consistently get around the corner. But as a one-gap 3-4 end, his combination of size and speed is just right, allowing him to overwhelm single blocking and get upfield.
The 6'4", 285-pound Smith was drafted by the Bengals with the No. 4 overall pick of the 2001 draft. After seven years of not quite meeting expectations, Smith came to San Francisco, and everything changed. In 2009, he made his first of four consecutive Pro Bowls, and in 2011 he was named first-team All-Pro.
Smith was graded as PFF's fifth-best 3-4 defensive end in 2012. His pass rush declined from its 2012 high, as he registered (by PFF's count) only four sacks. His pass-rush grade was only 15th-best among 3-4 ends, but his run-stopping grade ranked third.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had less to do with the 49ers' success during the regular season than any of the other guys mentioned. In fact, he didn't even start until the 49ers' 10th game, after previous starter Alex Smith was sidelined with a concussion.
But Kaepernick—whose rare combination of size, athleticism and throwing ability made the Pistol lethal at the University of Nevada—has suddenly become just as much of a force in the NFL. The 49ers have used more Pistol in the playoffs, and Kaepernick's threat to run has shredded the Green Bay Packers and paralyzed the Atlanta Falcons.
With Kaepernick and tailback Frank Gore, defenses must pick their poison: stay home and guard against the quarterback keeper, or attack the running back and be shredded by Kaepernick on the backside. The Packers chose the latter, the Falcons the former—and there may not be a right choice.
The real story of the Falcons game, though, was how devastatingly efficient Kaepernick was, completing 16 of his 21 passes for 233 yards and a score. Whether he or Gore is doing the running doesn't matter; if the threat of the run lets him pass like that, the opposition has little hope.
Against the Ravens
Here's how the 49ers' Pro Football Focus grades stack up against the Ravens:
Comparing regular-season performances, the 49ers have big advantages on both sides of the ball. They've outperformed the Ravens' solid offense and vastly outperformed their below-average defense. Anything the Ravens do poorly, the 49ers do well, and almost everything the Ravens do well, the 49ers do better.
Only the Ravens' special teams and passing offense edged out the 49ers during the course of the season. Then again, San Francisco's passing game isn't the same one that performed in the regular season.
The Ravens have stepped it up in the postseason, too, especially on defense. Perhaps Ray Lewis's last season is driving them to higher levels. But, on paper, the 49ers have a massive advantage in almost every phase of the game.