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5 Teams the San Francisco 49ers Should Hope to Avoid in the Playoffs

Joe LevittContributor IIIDecember 11, 2013

5 Teams the San Francisco 49ers Should Hope to Avoid in the Playoffs

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    It's Super Bowl or bust for one Peyton Manning.
    It's Super Bowl or bust for one Peyton Manning.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Admit it—even the rough-and-tough, blue-collar San Francisco 49ers can hope to avoid certain teams in the playoffs.

    Can they—yes. Should they?

    Well, that’s an affirmative too.

    Despite their fundamental gridiron toughness and Super Bowl pedigree, the Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers do not necessarily inspire the same intimidation they once did.

    The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints took on the Red and Gold onslaught this year and survived.

    The Seattle Seahawks, meanwhile, have no qualms about their beliefs of invincibility at home against their division rival (not to mention everyone else).

    Sure, a dropped Vance McDonald pass and controversial roughing the passer call doomed San Francisco unnecessarily against those former two foes. And even the 11-2 Seahawks cannot deny their historically proven vulnerability away from CenturyLink Field when playing the 49ers.

    But a win’s a win, and these opponents have all done so against the 49ers.

    Additionally, a few playoff teams from the AFC would welcome a head-to-head matchup with San Francisco. They want to square off with the former bully who emerged as NFC champion in 2012.

    The final three-game stretch of the regular season will decide whether any of those adversaries will get their shot.

    Two questions remain.

    Will San Francisco really want to get adversarial with any foe that comes its way? Should they have a preference even with their reinforced roster?

    Please allow us to declare what they undoubtedly never would.

    Here are five teams that the 49ers should hope to avoid in their 2013 postseason run.

     

    Note: The final selections represent the two most unwelcome Super Bowl matchups.

    Note: All advanced statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

5. Carolina Panthers, 9-4, No. 5 Seed in NFC

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    Would the 49ers defense want any part of a surging Cam Newton at home in the playoffs?
    Would the 49ers defense want any part of a surging Cam Newton at home in the playoffs?Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Carbon copies of two entities have a tendency to do similar things in similar ways.

    The 49ers and Panthers are two NFL teams with analogous personnel that achieve comparable success. Both are 9-4, with Carolina owning the current tiebreaker based on its win over San Francisco in Week 10.

    If a second matchup materializes in January, why should the 49ers wish to avoid this conference foe?

    The Panthers base their identity on a multifaceted rushing attack, dominant defensive front seven and dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton.

    Including Newton, three rushers have 300-plus yards and two or more touchdowns on the season. Leading man DeAngelo Williams brings outside speed as the every-down back, and Mike Tolbert serving as the powerful goal-line and short-yardage bruiser.

    Jonathan Stewart offers another power-based style in the rare instances when his body complies.

    And Newton simply does it all behind his complimentary 4.59 speed and 6’5’’, 248-pound frame. Eye-opening totals of 495 yards and six touchdowns on the ground fit in nicely with his 2,776 yards and 20 scores through the air.

    Carolina’s defense, however, is even more impressive.

    This unit rates top five in all three major categories. Holding opposing offenses to 216.8 yards passing (No. 5) and a league-best 79.4 yards rushing and 14.5 points per game contribute to its No. 2 overall ranking.

    From interior lineman Star Lotulelei to edge rushers Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy to linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, this contingent is unbreakable on the first two levels.

    An NFL-low three rushing touchdowns allowed and 41 quarterback sacks (fourth-most) generally make up for any deficiencies on the back end.

    Pro Football Focus’ top-25 cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence and safety Mike Mitchell limit those shortcomings to few indeed.

    They have surrendered just two touchdowns in coverage all season.

    San Francisco witnessed firsthand the full efficacy of this Panthers defense in Week 10.

    It limited the 49ers offense to a paltry 151 total yards. San Francisco generated all of four yards on 14 plays in the fourth quarter.

    Colin Kaepernick suffered to the greatest extent with just 91 yards passing, one interception and a 7.7 total QBR.

    Those totals, along with going 0-for-6 on deep passes of 10 or more yards, were all season-lows. He sat atop the team-wide offensive inadequacy with a 22.2 percent completion percentage, one pick and three sacks in the final quarter.

    ESPN Stats and Information detailed the overall lack of production in most unfortunate terms:

    The Panthers sacked Kaepernick a season-high six times, with four coming when rushing four or fewer defenders. Kaepernick hadn't taken more than three total sacks in a game this season...Kaepernick didn't record one scramble Sunday, his first game this season without one. When Kaepernick did escape the pocket, he was 0-for-4 with two sacks. The 49ers were limited to 44 yards after contact on 32 rushes and receptions Sunday, their lowest of the season. 12 of the 44 yards came on one Frank Gore rush...The 49ers gained only 43 yards after the catch on 11 receptions. The 3.9 average yards after the catch was the lowest for the 49ers this season.

    Carolina was simply unyielding in its efforts at Candlestick Park one month ago.

    Without delving full bore into the intimate details, the 49ers are built in nearly an exact likeness to the Panthers (their respective 3-4 and 4-3 defensive alignments are often interchangeable.)

    A three-headed rushing corps of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Kaepernick; a league-renowned front seven featuring Glenn Dorsey, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis; defensive backs of similar standing in Tramaine Brock and Eric Reid; and a do-it-all quarterback dynamo in Kaepernick all align with Carolina’s personnel.

    Ranking No. 4 and No. 2 in total defense, respectively, further maintains the corresponding compositions.

    And for what it’s worth, each team has both won and lost to a Super Bowl favorite since their Week 10 battle.

    San Francisco took down the first-place Seattle Seahawks last Sunday, while Carolina conquered the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots on November 18. Both fell short in the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints.

    Let’s now move forward to hypothetical postseason scenarios based on current playoff seeding.

    The Panthers occupy the first of two wild-card slots at No. 5 overall. The 49ers, meanwhile, hold the sixth and final spot in the NFC.

    These teams wouldn’t meet each other again until the conference championship based on those rankings.

    If the Panthers were just a little better on all phases during their ultra-close 10-9 victory back in November, why would the 49ers fear Carolina again in January?

    Because the Panthers would have home-field advantage and because Newton would have developed into a big-game quarterback with two road playoff wins up to that point.

    It would amount to Newton making the play in crunch time as a smooth-operating signal-caller. A supportive home crowd would make that game-changing moment possible.

    This is not to disrespect the league’s second-ranked defense in any way. Carolina is as formidable as it gets at rushing the passer and stopping the run.

    Johnson, Lotulelei and Kuechly are all top five at their respective positions for a reason.

    But Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham and a healthy Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis would outnumber their playmaking counterparts. They would exploit safety Quintin Mikell (three touchdowns allowed) and an overachieving Panthers’ secondary over the top.

    Newton would be the man ruining San Francisco’s championship hopes in any such disastrous playoff game with Carolina.

    Now would the 49ers prefer the Panthers over some other postseason matchups?

    Of course—that’s why they come in at the bottom of this top five.

4. New Orleans Saints, 10-3, No. 2 Seed in NFC

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    Sean Payton and Drew Brees create havoc for opposing defenses with their offensive genius.
    Sean Payton and Drew Brees create havoc for opposing defenses with their offensive genius.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    From carbon copy to diametrical opposite—this analysis moves forward.

    The Saints derive their winning potency from an all-out aerial assault driven by quarterback Drew Brees.

    The man exists in a class of two for all major passing categories.

    Brees has compiled 4,107 yards, 33 touchdowns and a 106.5 rating on 68.0 percent passing. Piling up 316 yards per game further solidifies his top-two standing.

    His meager eight interceptions are the fewest among quarterbacks with 470 or more attempts.

    Talk about sniper-quality precision.

    An unrelenting host of weapons exists on the receiving end of Brees’ downfield throws.

    Jimmy Graham leads the charge with 74 catches for 1,046 yards at tight end.

    The 6’7’’, 265-pound collegiate basketball player ranks in the top 11 for yards, top nine in receptions and top six for first-down catches (53) and those grossing 20 or more yards (17). He falls second to none with 14 touchdowns.

    Graham and the end zone have been known to hang out in the offseason.

    Brees finds another reliable target in 6’4’’ wideout Marques Colston.

    The eight-year veteran is unrivaled out of the slot with a catch rate of 76.6 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. He has 56 receptions and only one drop out of 81 targets.

    Colston is the Saints’ second-leading receiver with 721 yards and four scores.

    Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem, to their credit, have a combined 20.3 in average yards per catch. The first of these deep threats gives Brees an NFL-high 19.8 yards per reception.

    What separates Brees from the likes of Peyton Manning is his prolific use of running backs in addition to outside pass-catchers.

    It starts with Darren Sproles.

    Sproles is one of the most remarkable things to come into existence since sliced bread. The 5’6’’, 190-pounder consistently torches defenses in the passing game with 4.47 speed and unheard of route-running and hands at the running back position.

    He leads the NFL with 2.56 yards per route run and a staggering zero drops. The latter is otherwise known as a drop rate of 0.00 or 58 catches out of 58 catchable balls.

    Brees has yet another back at his disposal in addition to Sproles and his No. 2-ranked 518 yards receiving.

    Pierre Thomas is the more conventional type at 5’11’’ and 215 pounds. Still, he also brings proficient route-running and duct tape-quality hands.

    Thomas comes in at No. 6 with 1.72 yards per route run and No. 4 with a 3.03-percent drop rate (two total drops) among running backs. For perspective, the Kansas City Chiefs all-world Jamaal Charles has five times as many drops (10) despite only one more catchable ball (67) thrown his way.

    Give Sproles and Thomas five touchdown catches to round things out.

    For Brees, his backfield weapons are just as prolific as what exists on the outside.

    Fortunately, the 49ers have seen this dynamic once before and contained it.

    The Vic Fangio-coached defense restricted the Saints’ running back duo to just 54 yards on nine catches in Week 11. New Orleans’ prominent receiving counterparts did not produce a single touchdown either, including the usually unstoppable Graham.

    In fact, the only scores allowed by San Francisco’s fourth-ranked unit came via third-string tight end Josh Hill and the equally utilized—which is never—Jed Collins on the fullback’s goal-line rushing touchdown.

    Yes, Brees eclipsed 300 yards passing. But his customary averages of three touchdowns and a 122.5 passer rating at home were nowhere in sight.

    The 49ers limited him to just one passing score and an 87.8 rating, not to mention picking off Brees for just his third interception within friendly confines.

    This defense also made the play when it mattered most. Unfortunately, a predictable but erroneous penalty negated its existence and game-sealing effectiveness.

    Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks caused a strip-sack of Brees in the fourth quarter. Fellow backer Patrick Willis picked up the loose ball for a crucial takeaway.

    The 49ers would have had possession and the lead with just over three minutes remaining.

    They likely could have run out the clock behind a rested Gore against the Saints’ No. 17-ranked run defense.

    Then this occurred:

    (Shotgun) D.Brees sacked at SF 45 for -10 yards (A.Brooks). FUMBLES (A.Brooks), declared dead at SF 45. PENALTY on SF-A.Brooks, Personal Foul, 15 yards, enforced at SF 45. On the play, SF# 52 P. Willis recovered the ball, but on the penalty for a blow to the head and neck area of a quarterback, the 49ers were not allowed to retain possession. The penalty was marked from the point of the sack.

    Bogus in every sense of the word.

    Brooks utilized fundamentally sound execution on the approach, hit and sack of Brees. He tackled him across the chest, and only when Brees fell toward the ground did Brooks’ arm graze the quarterback’s neck.

    Alas, the officiating crew deemed otherwise.

    The Saints won, the 49ers lost and the record books made it official for all posterity.

    Why then would the 49ers feel any trepidation about traveling to the Superdome one more time—playoffs or otherwise? They had already been there and done enough to win, did they not?

    Because the Saints are a different animal in a dome. And advanced creatures in their unique, comfortable environments rarely let themselves get exploited more than once.

    The combination of Brees and head coach Sean Payton in all their uber-preparedness and glorious on-field execution would not let it happen again. They would develop a creative gameplan conducive toward a Superdome-powered blowout of the 49ers.

    After all, the Saints are 16-0 at home since 2011 (playoffs included) with Brees under center and Payton not being relegated to Roger Goodell-issued house arrest.

    This above scenario dictates that the addition of Michael Crabtree would not sufficiently bolster the 49ers offense. It implies that the defense simply could not do it again at a high enough level against the Saints’ offensive blitzkrieg.

    It of course remains to be seen what would actually transpire if these teams do meet again (No. 2 New Orleans with first-round bye, No. 6 San Francisco over No. 3 Philadelphia, No. 2 New Orleans over No. 4 Detroit/No. 5 Carolina, No. 6 San Francisco over No. 1 Seattle, San Francisco at No. 2 New Orleans).

    Yet, playing the third of three consecutive postseason matchups away from home—in such a brutal atmosphere no less—on the road to the Super Bowl is a daunting task indeed.

    The Jim Harbaugh-coached 49ers are certainly capable. They possess the requisite talent, pride and experience for another NFC Championship crown.

    But if they had a preference, the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers are entirely more desirable opponents.

    As for the most undesirable

3. Seattle Seahawks, 11-2, No. 1 Seed in NFC

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    Those words have held true for the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field since 2012.
    Those words have held true for the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field since 2012.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Carbon copy—check. Diametrical opposite—done. Superior mirror image—oh boy.

    The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl in 2012, lost and returned a championship-caliber team in 2013.

    They would clearly like to make it back to football’s promised land and win.

    Any such winning road to the NFL’s end-all, be-all game, however, travels through the Pacific Northwest—a losing and desolate wasteland that’s controlled by a malevolent troll as far as the 49ers are concerned.

    San Francisco is in for the mother of all punch-you-in-the-mouth, grind-it-out, play-till-you-bleed postseason battles if it intends on playing in Super Bowl XLVIII.

    The Seattle Seahawks are the NFL’s version of an arrogant older brother that continually has the upper hand over its precocious younger brother—played in this case by the 2013 49ers.

    The Seahawks, like the elder sibling, achieve great success week in and week out, and completely disrespect what their similarly skilled younger sibling accomplishes.

    They talk a lot of smack, bullying the family relation toward an inferiority complex.

    They’ll even capitulate for a time, to give the up-and-comer a taste of the high life, only to immediately belittle its accomplishment to no end.

    They can’t wait to crush the inferior in the most devastating fashion when they meet again (See: Richard Sherman).

    In a case of hypothetical-turned-inevitable, here would arrive the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

    Let’s hit the rewind button for just a moment.

    The top dogs in the league’s preeminent division split their season series in 2013.

    Pete Carroll’s Seahawks crushed their rival 49ers 29-3 at CenturyLink Field behind a 24-point scoring outburst in the second half.

    Marshawn Lynch accounted for everything offensively with 135 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage.

    “Beast Mode’s” stellar production compensated for Russell Wilson’s poorest outing of the year. Wilson totaled season-lows with a 42.1 completion percentage and 142 yards passing, while notching his second-worst passer rating of 63.9.

    He completed just eight passes and threw an interception into the hands of rookie free safety Eric Reid.

    Yet, it was the Seahawks No. 1 defense that deserved the most attention.

    The 4-3 front seven created consistent pressure with three sacks and 18 combined quarterback hits and hurries. Defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril starred with 10 total pressures against Colin Kaepernick.

    As a result, Kaepernick suffered through the most dismal Sunday of his young career.

    The “Legion of Boom” picked him off three times and forced an awful 46.4 completion percentage and 20.1 passer rating.

    Ringleader Richard Sherman was in his usual illegally good form with one interception, one pass breakup and a 33.3 percent completion rate and 8.3 passer rating allowed.

    Kaepernick’s running prowess was also absent from this game. He appeared timid throughout, with most of his 87 yards rushing amounting to inconsequential scrambles.

    The trenches, for their part, were an overall source of defensive ownership for the Seahawks and offensive failure for the 49ers.

    Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant won their interior matchups all game long. Frank Gore rushed for 16 total yards on nine carries with just six yards coming between the tackles.

    By game’s end, Seattle’s epically raucous crowd helped reduce San Francisco’s offense to a collection of head-scratchers after coughing up five turnovers and holding the ball for just 23:17.

    The 49ers, thankfully, achieved a sense of comforting retribution with Seattle last week.

    Gore, in a lovely sense of football irony, served as front man for the divisional payback.

    The franchise’s all-time bell cow nearly placed a “times seven” next to his Week 2 rushing aggregate with 110 yards despite just eight additional carries.

    The most critical, of course, arrived late in the fourth quarter.

    Gore rushed left off tackle Joe Staley and lead fullback Bruce Miller before cutting right, beating free safety Earl Thomas and bursting down the sideline for a 51-yard gain.

    It was a classic showcase of the 49ers’ run-blocking dominance and Gore’s considerable football intelligence.

    Kaepernick then reciprocated in equally decisive fashion with a first down-netting QB sweep off left end on 3rd-and-7. Phil Dawson kicked the go-ahead 22-yard field goal shortly thereafter.

    With nine seconds left on the clock, San Francisco’s top-five defense did the proverbial icing-on-the-cake dance, as nickel cornerback Eric Wright intercepted Wilson’s Hail Mary attempt.

    Game over, ego preserved—the 49ers exhaled.

    The final play solidified a superb afternoon by particular members of the secondary and defense overall.

    Wright, Tramaine Brock and Donte Whitner did their part in shutting down Golden Tate and Jermaine Kearse.

    The trio of defensive backs held Seattle’s pass-catchers to just one catch on six targets, not to mention a 33.3 passer rating allowed in their coverage area.

    Up front, Ray McDonald experienced his own deliverance. The seldom-healthy defensive end notched one sack, two stops and his second-highest rating of the season by Pro Football Focus.

    Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey followed suit with his PFF-best and further domination of Seattle’s running game.

    Indeed, Lynch’s one rushing touchdown was more aberrant than norm in this game. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, including 2.6 between the teeth of the 49ers’ front line.

    Linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, meanwhile, provided the majority of their team’s vital pass rush with five quarterback pressures.

    Bowman’s bone-crushing sack of Wilson on Seattle’s opening series set the tone for the entire game.

    Fortunately, Patrick Willis’ two rare lapses in coverage did not completely undermine the efforts made by his defensive teammates.

    Rookie tight end Luke Willson burned the 49ers’ perennial All Pro twice in the second quarter.

    The first was a 29-yard catch that brought the Seahawks across midfield on their first touchdown drive. Willis’ second gaffe resulted directly in Willson’s 39-yard touchdown and a 14-9 Seattle lead.

    Pro Football Focus docked Willis with a negative rating in pass defense for the only time this season.

    Before moving further along with the negative outlook, here is what bodes well for the 49ers in their potential future matchup with the Seahawks.

     

    Offense

    • Kaepernick and Vernon Davis maintained their season-long mutual connection with the tight end’s 11th touchdown reception.
    • That red-zone score on third down won the first half—and possibly the game—for the 49ers.
    • Michael Crabtree showed burst and vertical leap, especially on an acrobatic 17-yard catch.
    • Anquan Boldin clearly benefited from Crabtree’s presence. He had another 90-yard outing with No. 15 on the field.
    • 49ers receivers induced multiple penalties on the Seahawks’ notoriously aggressive secondary.
    • Gore and Kaepernick rejuvenated their team’s offensive strength with two timely runs on the game-winning drive.
    • San Francisco managed the clock and killed 5:54 on that final series. It won overall time of possession with 32:28 on offense.

     

    Defense

    • The front seven generated multiple sacks for the second-straight game against Seattle. McDonald and Bowman served as a newfound source.
    • The back end picked off Wilson and limited him to one touchdown pass once again. Brock and Wright were two new additional difference-makers.
    • Lynch did not register a single catch in the passing game. Credit Bowman.
    • Seattle lost in the trenches and recorded fewer than 100 yards rushing.
    • San Francisco forced four Seattle drives into either zero first downs or negative total yardage.
    • The Seahawks scored just 17 points, well below their top-three average of 27.5.
    • Bowman and Company “out-physicaled” the Seahawks. Crucial—not cliche.

     

    Unfortunately, all of this positivity occurred in San Francisco.

    The 49ers have not experienced the taste of victory in Seattle since 2011. They have not proven their championship mettle at “The C-link” over the past two seasons.

    The Seahawks, from top to bottom, have maintained their superior big-brother status on their home field.

    They win the trenches, pound the rock, stop the run, create turnovers, produce big plays and outsmart the opposition—all at higher levels than the 49ers.

    What the 49ers do best, the Seahawks simply do better.

    Call it smash-mouth, opportunistic football at it’s finest—with game-altering production from a more advanced dual-threat quarterback sprinkled on top.

    Let’s conclude with some factual tidbits.

    Two stats pertaining to win-loss records assume ownership over all others in this unavoidable Super Bowl-qualifier.

    Wilson is 14-0 at home since taking over starting duties as a rookie in 2012. He is 2-0 against Kaepernick and the 49ers.

    As the lowest playoff seed based on current league standings, the 49ers’ second postseason stop will materialize in CenturyLink Field against the top-seeded Seahawks.

    If they could avoid it, they would. But they can’t, so they won’t.

    Want another shot at Super Bowl redemption, San Francisco 49ers?

    Beat the best at their best—on their own turf.

2. New England Patriots, 10-3, No. 2 Seed in AFC

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    Tom Brady is a Super Bowl-winning machine. The 49ers might want to avoid him.
    Tom Brady is a Super Bowl-winning machine. The 49ers might want to avoid him.Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Oh, look—it’s Tom Brady.

    There he goes winning again despite half his team sitting on injured reserve.

    The New England Patriots have attained the 10-win plateau for the 11th-straight season and 12th time since 2001. Brady has been the field general under center for all but one of those campaigns.

    This year Brady leads a Patriots squad ranked No. 2 in the AFC.

    But aside from an eighth-ranked passing offense, New England falls outside the top 10 in most prominent statistical categories.

    Its No. 31-ranked run defense (135.8 yards per game) and seventh-most touchdowns allowed through the air (21) are particularly un-playoff worthy for a contending squad.

    The same goes for surrendering 28.6 points per game over the past five contests.

    Third-string quarterbacks for the Houston Texans (Case Keenum) and Cleveland Browns (Jason Campbell) have been at the forefront during two of these Patriots’ defensive breakdowns.

    One also cannot forget turnover-prone rookie Geno Smith generating two scores in the New York Jets 30-27 win back in Week 7.

    Worst of all, injuries continually devastate New England’s starting roster.

    Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and tight end Rob Gronkowski are all out for the season. Cornerback Aquib Talib, running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Danny Amendola have missed an additional 15 games.

    That means that top personnel at all levels of this team—both offense and defense—have been unavailable for the vast majority of the season.

    How, then, have the Patriots overcome these innumerable setbacks en route to a 10-3 record?

    And why on earth would the 49ers worry themselves over this injury-plagued Super Bowl opponent?

    Two words: Tom Brady.

    Brady has orchestrated five game-winning drives in 2013. They lead the NFL and fall second only to his career-high of seven in 2003.

    Most incredible among these all-time comebacks was overcoming a 24-point halftime deficit against the AFC-leading Denver Broncos. Brady delivered three touchdown passes and no interceptions before clinching a 34-31 overtime victory over Peyton Manning and Company.

    For good measure, Brady put up two touchdowns in a 158-second span after falling behind 26-14 to the Browns with 2:38 remaining in the game.

    It’s not like he was playing opposite a top-10 unit geared totally against the pass or anything.

    The first-ballot future Hall-of-Famer has simply produced beyond his rarefied statistical and intangible ways of seasons’ past.

    He operates within an offense with absolutely zero continuity at playmaking positions.

    The likes of lower-depth chart option Julian Edelman, nine-drop rookie Aaron Dobson and undrafted free-agent Kenbrell Thompkins are what Brady works with on a weekly basis.

    Gronkowski, Amendola and Vereen—his most trusted weapons—have been sidelined more often than not.

    And New England’s defense, as mentioned, just can’t stop anybody due to unit-wide deficiencies.

    Yet, the 49ers must disregard all of it.

    They must appreciate Brady’s epic proficiency at overcoming insurmountable obstacles in ways no other quarterback can.

    Remember, Brady coordinated four touchdown drives in less than a quarter’s time against San Francisco just last year. He brought New England back from a 28-point deficit and tied it at 31-all with 6:43 remaining in the fourth quarter.

    His capacity for comeback football—including six game-winning drives in the postseason—should give the 49ers ample cause for concern.

    As should three Lombardi Trophies and the genius of head coach Bill Belichick.

    In any case, the 49ers would much rather the Kansas City Chiefs or Cincinnati Bengals advance to the Super Bowl.

    Avoiding Brady is a no-brainer.

1. Denver Broncos, 11-2, No. 1 Seed in AFC

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    Laser focus, killer instinct—Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas would give the 49ers all sorts of problems.
    Laser focus, killer instinct—Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas would give the 49ers all sorts of problems.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Describing the unfavorable elements in this final selection will necessitate few words.

    Video game-like production on the football gridiron tends to favor brevity in any description after the fact. We’ll see how it goes.

    Peyton Manning currently drives the Bugatti Veyron of NFL offenses.

    Like the 1,200 horsepower and top speed of 254 mph generated by one of the world’s fastest and most expensive cars ($2.8 million), Manning powers one of the most prolific offenses the football world has ever seen.

    And one that’s worthy of a Super Bowl production’s 10-figure price tag.

    Manning sits stop the quarterback rankings with 4,522 yards passing, 45 touchdowns and a 114.5 passer rating. Any such second-leading totals exist by the slimmest of margins (See: 67.9 completion percentage, 8.39 yards per attempt, nine interceptions).

    He is on pace for a league-record 5,566 yards and 55 touchdowns, eclipsing Drew Brees and Tom Brady, respectively, in the all-time echelons.

    The Denver Broncos as a whole average an NFL-best 465.6 yards and 39.6 points per game and 48 percent on third-down conversions.

    Those include an impressive 124.4 yards on the ground and 16 rushing touchdowns—a No. 2 mark fostered by Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball’s two-headed attack

    Furthermore, Denver features dynamically skilled receivers in its passing arsenal.

    Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are dual 1,000-yard producers who utilize their 6’3’’, powerful frames over opposing defensive backs.

    The former leads the NFL with 584 yards after the catch, while Decker stands alone with a 54.5 percent catch rate on downfield passes traveling 20 or more yards.

    Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas, meanwhile, are top-three contributors with 11 touchdowns. The latter Thomas stands at an even taller 6’5’’ and is often uncoverable with NBA-quality ball skills at his position.

    Wes Welker “brings up the rear” in this offense with 10 scores and 778 yards as the league’s most productive slot receiver.

    Manning, of course, sparks the ignition and guides the wheel of this offensive machine under any and all conditions.

    No quarterback releases the ball faster than Manning’s 2.37-second average. Legendary footwork, vision and football intelligence further play a role in his unrivaled 70.9 accuracy percentage when operating against the pass rush.

    Credit those same qualities for assisting a patchwork offensive line in surrendering the fewest sacks in the league (15).

    It’s abundantly clear that spinal fusion and multiple neck surgeries have not precluded the 37-year-old Manning from compiling the highest statistical achievements of his illustrious Hall of Fame career.

    Coming back in the fullest possible circle, would the 49ers have enough cover men against this absurdly stacked offense? Would they stand a chance defensively in the most pressurized game of their football lives?

    Well, it would certainly amount to a monumentally tall order for San Francisco.

    Tramaine Brock would take Demaryius Thomas as the 49ers current top cornerback. Eric Wright would matchup with Decker on the outside, while Carlos Rogers covered Welker from the slot.

    Inside linebacker Patrick Willis would man up with Julius Thomas underneath until strong safety Donte Whitner could support over the top. NaVorro Bowman would have the charge of blanketing Moreno and Ball in the passing game.

    Eric Reid, in turn, would serve as the thumper over the middle and final line of downfield defense from his free safety position.

    Two things to consider.

    Having mitigated the New Orleans Saints’ sophisticated attack in Week 11 should serve as supporting evidence for the 49ers’ capability in coverage. Creating 30 quarterback pressures in two games against sack-averse Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks should speak to San Francisco’s legitimate corps of pass-rushers.

    All that said, the Manning-led Broncos are a special breed on offense.

    He and his playmakers might eventually overtake the 49ers with their endless depth and sheer game-breaking ability.

    San Francisco’s third-fewest pass plays of 20 or more yards allowed (30) might not hold up.

    The 49ers own resurgent offense, however, would at the very least put points on the board.

    Denver’s exploitable No. 25-ranked defense has surrendered big plays all season long.

    It dwells in the bottom five in rushing touchdowns (14), run plays of 20 or more yards (12), passing touchdowns (24) and pass plays of 20 or more yards allowed (55).

    Only seven teams have given up more than the Broncos’ 26.5 points and 374.2 yards per game.

    A combination of Frank Gore out of the backfield, Anquan Boldin underneath, Michael Crabtree on the outside, Vernon Davis down the seam and Colin Kaepernick facilitating with both his arms and legs would produce in Porsche 911 Turbo-like fashion.

    Then again, Porsches generally fair better against breakdown-prone muscle cars (Patriots) and over-achieving rice rockets (Bengals) on the track.

    Bugatti be gone—the Broncos are the matchup the 49ers would most want to avoid in Super Bowl XLVIII.

     

    Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16

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