Following two close victories in Weeks 16 and 17 over what should be considered inferior teams, the San Francisco 49ers need to be concerned whether or not the team is being exposed at the wrong time before heading into the playoffs.
First, allow me to get my disclaimers out of the way.
Any win at the NFL level is a lofty task. Nothing is guaranteed in this league. A win, no matter how close or ugly, is a win.
In addition, closing out the regular season with a road victory over a division rival that would eventually finish the season with a 10-6 record is also an accomplishment.
San Francisco ends its own regular season with a 12-4 record and a third consecutive trip to the postseason as the fifth overall seed.
Final NFC Playoff Standings: 1 Seahawks 2 Panthers 3 Eagles 4 Packers 5 49ers 6 Saints— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) December 30, 2013
Yet the past two games have revealed a number of issues that could very well hamper this team moving forward.
In both Weeks 16 and 17, it was a tale of two halves for the 49ers.
Against the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco fell flat offensively in the first half. Against the Arizona Cardinals, the offense sputtered in the second, with the exception of a late drive in the fourth quarter that led to a game-winning Phil Dawson field goal.
Simply put, this is not something the 49ers will be able to survive in the playoffs—at least not for very long.
San Francisco finished the regular season with a defense that ranked third in the league with 272 points allowed. This unit has also held opponents to less than 90 rushing yards in each of the last four games.
Those numbers are good and should be a bonus heading into the playoffs.
What is of concern, however, is the fact that the 49ers defense has given up considerable passing yards over the past two games—341 and 399 yards in Weeks 16 and 17 respectively.
These statistics are eerily reminiscent of San Francisco's woes against the pass last season.
In addition, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was sacked only once in Week 17, which stands in contrast to the 40 sacks he endured in the previous 15 games. Per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, that allowed Palmer to stay in the pocket and make big plays when they developed.
San Francisco's defense gave up a total of 482 yards—the most they have given up all season.
It is worth noting that the 49ers sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan only once the week before, and he was able to put up similar numbers.
San Francisco may also be without veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers, who left Sunday's game with a strained hamstring per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
49ers allowed 755 yards passing in final two games, and Carlos Rogers' status is unclear for game vs. Packers. http://t.co/d0wTt0WGOZ— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) December 30, 2013
Rogers said, “It’s not hurting me. We’ll see. Hopefully, it’s not that bad.”
The defense has shown in the last two games that they can be scored upon if they become complacent. This facet is further argued by Christian Gin of Examiner.com.
That is something that absolutely cannot happen when the 49ers take on the Green Bay Packers on the road in the Wild Card Round.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers revealed that their offense is back on track after their 33-28 victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 17. Rodgers, who finally returned from his collarbone injury, threw for 318 yards and two touchdowns against two interceptions.
Complacency is something San Francisco cannot afford on the road in the playoffs. Expect defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to try his best to redress this situation as soon as possible.
In the first quarter against Arizona, San Francisco's offense looked like the unit most fans and analysts wanted to see heading into the playoffs—putting up 17 points.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman's play-calling threw off Arizona's defense during this quarter, which worked to the 49ers' benefit.
Yet until late in the fourth, San Francisco's offense went stagnant.
On a crucial 4th-and-1—where the 49ers elected to go for it and leave potential points off the board—they couldn't convert, and it wound up being a turnover on downs.
A questionable call on the road? You be the judge.
Granted, Arizona's run defense is solid—best in the league in total rushing yards allowed.
This explains why running back Frank Gore was limited to only 14 yards on 13 attempts.
Aside from the first quarter and a portion of the fourth, San Francisco's offense had difficulty moving the ball.
Gin elaborates more on this by writing, "This was a lackluster effort on offense where the Cardinals kept the 49ers punting or out of the end zone after having trouble in a 17-0 start."
The lack of offensive prowess during the middle portions of the game kept San Francisco's defense on the field for far too long, potentially wearing them down and setting up some of Arizona's big plays.
“We didn’t execute the way we wanted to after that,” wide receiver Anquan Boldin said via Maiocco. “We hit a lull for three quarters. That’s something we have to correct, something we can’t allow to happen.”
That is another element that the 49ers can ill afford heading into Green Bay.
Fortunately, the Packers defense—specifically against the run—is not on the same tier as Arizona.
Look for the 49ers to try and get back to running the ball effectively if they want to pull off a victory in the opening playoff round.
This was the one unit that performed exceptionally well for San Francisco in Week 17.
Aside from a missed field goal from Phil Dawson—which ended his streak of 27 consecutive made field-goal attempts—the 49ers special teams did a solid job all around to close out the regular season.
Dawson made up for his miss with two critical field goals in the fourth quarter, one of which sealed the victory as time expired.
Kick coverage was good as were the returns.
#49ers special teams has been special on kickoff returns for most of the year.— Christian Gin (@Christian_Gin) December 29, 2013
San Francisco hopes this trend will continue in the playoffs.
What is San Francisco's biggest concern heading into the playoffs?
In spite of the 49ers' six-game winning streak to close out the regular season, San Francisco has shown some cracks of late.
Like any playoff-bound team, there are problems that can be exploited moving forward.
Can the 49ers address these concerns? Absolutely. Will they do so in time to make another deep playoff push? That remains to be seen.
What is known is this—the 49ers need to solve some of the aforementioned woes quickly if they hope to survive in the postseason. While the phrase "win by any means necessary" always holds true, San Francisco can put itself in a better position if they are able to shore up some of their recent miscues.
If they can do that, the majority of these concerns will be an afterthought.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.