Colin Kaepernick and Co. are back in the playoffs once more.
Now it gets serious for the San Francisco 49ers. All the problems from early this season—the losses to playoff teams at the beginning of the year, the struggles of the passing offense as Michael Crabtree missed the first three quarters of the season, Colin Kaepernick’s struggles in his first full season as an NFL starting quarterback—all that’s behind the team now. The 49ers know the road in front of them—they’re a wild-card team, meaning the path back to the Super Bowl lies mainly on the road.
Few teams, however, are hotter right now than the 49ers. Their six-game win streak is tops in the NFL at the moment, and, ever since their passing game returned to something approaching full health, they’ve actually looked like a functional NFL offense through the air. If you believe in momentum, their win streak indicates everything is coming up San Francisco. If you don’t, then you can just point to the fact that San Francisco has been a better, more complete team over the past month and a half than they were at the beginning of the season.
Almost more importantly, that six-game win streak includes a win over playoff-bound Seattle and 10-win Arizona, both solid feathers in the 49ers’ cap—it wasn’t solely against the proverbial weak links of the league. Over those six games, they’ve averaged just under 350 yards of total offense, while holding opponents to just over 300. That would be good enough to have them in the top dozen teams offensively and the top three defensively over the course of a full season—holding form on defense and representing a massive improvement on offense.
Over those last six games, they’ve turned the ball over only three times while forcing nine of their own. They’ve won big, over Washington and Tampa Bay, and they’ve gutted out wins in the clutch, against Seattle, Atlanta and Arizona. At this point, the 49ers are better suited for playoff success than they were at the beginning of the season.
That’s not to say that they should be Super Bowl favorites or anything quite yet. Life is rough for a wild card—in all probability, three consecutive road games, including the looming specter of a return trip to CenturyLink Field. Even if they travel to Lambeau and beat the Packers for the second time this season—something that, in and of itself, is far from a given due to the return of Aaron Rodgers—they would get a rested Seattle or Carolina in the second round.
Teams with bye weeks have a huge advantage in the divisional round of the playoffs. Since the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams in 1990, the teams coming off of a bye have won 74 percent of the time. That’s better than the usual win percentage for teams at home, both during the regular season (57 percent) and the playoffs (68 percent).
The added chance to recuperate—a chance for Richard Sherman to rest his hip, or Steve Smith to rest his knee—gives the top seeds a significant advantage, dealing with a 49ers team who would have, in theory, just survived a potentially damaging game in Green Bay. It also lets the resting teams have an extra week to game-plan and scheme, another advantage.
No, the path for any wild-card team is going to be a rough one, but San Francisco can look back at recent wild-card teams to draw inspiration—if you peak at the right time, you can absolutely sail through the difficult playoff waters and reach the Super Bowl. They only have to look across their field at their opponents this Sunday for proof—the Green Bay Packers, after suffering an injury-plagued 2010 season, managed to grab the final wild-card slot and roll all the way through Super Bowl XLV. The seeding is important, but if one team is firing on all cylinders, it doesn’t matter what the regular-season records were.
Green Bay’s a decent draw for a first-round opponent, as well—it seems like a lifetime ago, but the Crabtree-less 49ers handled the Packers back in Week 1, and their defense is worse than it was back then, having lost Clay Matthews. Football Outsiders ranked their defense as 29th best in the league coming in to the week. While the offensive numbers are deflated due to Rodgers missing so much time, the Packers have struggled to stop anyone this season.
Are the 49ers Super Bowl favorites? It’s hard to put them in that slot, just due to the road they would have to travel to get there. Of the four wild-card teams, though, the 49ers might have the best chance of ending their season in New Jersey at the Super Bowl.