Curious about the playoff road ahead for the San Francisco 49ers?
Well, after finishing the 2013 season at 12-4 with the best record within their division, coach Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers are cemented in the No. 5 postseason spot, readying to face quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card Round on Sunday.
While the 49ers will miss out on a first-round bye for the first time in three seasons, they’re in the tourney.
Even with the 49ers as a fifth seed and having to play in an extra round, Bovada LV is currently giving San Francisco 7-1 odds to win Super Bowl XLVIII (Only behind Denver and Seattle at 11-4).
If they defeat the Pack, they’ll be staring to the barrel of a matchup versus the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field or possibly the New Orleans Saints. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. But the 49ers have to be considered one of the hot teams entering the postseason and a threat to defeat any team they encounter.
Assuming the 49ers win this week in Green Bay and continue to advance, here is a look at how San Francisco matches up against potential opponents in the 2013-14 playoff race.
The No. 5 seed 49ers are slated to play the No. 4 seed Packers at Lambeau Field in Sunday’s Wild Card Round.
Not to disregard Green Bay and the success it's had, but it seems that the 49ers have the Packers figured out.
In the 19-game stretch from 2012-2013 (including the playoffs), during which Green Bay played and lost to San Francisco three times, the Packers only lost four games to other teams. It has been very uncharacteristic of a Mike McCarthy-led club that fields one of the more menacing teams week in and week out.
It leads many to believe that the Packers simply don’t match up well with a brute 49ers squad.
One-time league MVP and Super Bowl champion quarterback Aaron Rodgers has thrown an interception in every single game against this defense. He also happens to rank No. 1 all-time with the lowest interception rate (1.8 percent), which is 0.2 percent better than New England Patriots passer Tom Brady.
So it's not like he's careless with the ball. This defense is just smart enough and disciplined enough to handle him.
The 49ers' success is also due to the fact that the Green Bay offensive line can’t protect the QB. In three games, Rodgers has been sacked a total of six times for negative-44 yards and planted in the ground 13 times overall. The pressures have been constant, as San Francisco typically bludgeons the left side of Green Bay's O-line.
Rodgers gets smacked around, can’t find a rhythm and the 49ers proceed to run the ball down their throat and take chunks in the air with their physical wideouts.
On the other hand, Green Bay seems due for a victory versus the 49ers.
It has inched closer in each win and it now has an X-factor in running back Eddie Lacy, who took it to San Francisco the last time around. The rookie is a dense, die-hard back who finishes runs well. This is the exact kind of tailback that has given this defense issues in the past.
If Lacy is able to get going at Lambeau, allowing the Packers to eat clock and have balance, then they’ve got a shot.
Nevertheless, if that’s the only thing they have going for them versus this top-ranked run defense, then it’s going to be a long day for Aaron Rodgers and Co. The scales still tip in favor of San Francisco. The 49ers are healthy, their pass defense is better than it was in their last three matchups and they’re strong at both wide receiver positions, as opposed to just the one in Week 1.
Advantage: San Francisco
Like the Green Bay Packers, the New Orleans Saints—with all their explosiveness and dominant showings over the years—are a finesse team that simply does not match up well with the brute force of the 49ers.
So the key matchup here is San Francisco’s defense versus the New Orleans offense.
Very rarely does quarterback Drew Brees look like himself versus this defense, in the sense that it doesn’t allow him to find a rhythm. Typically, the central game plan is to drop seven to eight men into coverage, while sending four fresh-legged pass-rushers at him to disrupt the pocket.
The Niners D has also been able to achieve three-and-outs and get off the field, keeping No. 9 on the sideline.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has drawn Brees into making mistakes with the overbearing pressure the 49ers bring with just a few guys. By blanketing the deep part of the field, they take away the kill shot and challenge Brees to make a tight-window throw on virtually every down.
Maybe Fangio will send three or four timely, well-executed blitzes a game outside of that.
This game plan has worked marvelously, giving San Francisco a 2-1 advantage over New Orleans in their last three games. Brees has thrown five interceptions in three contests and has been sacked nine times for 73 yards and hit 20 times total. The Saints superstar quarterback gets mauled, and it gets worse for him over the game as the offense gets one-dimensional.
With Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and the gorillas on the line, the 49ers have been able to take away the run in their nickel and sub-packages.
So the 49ers have systematic flexibility with their talent and are able to sacrifice men in the box in order to stack up to stop the pass. And the Saints' run game still goes nowhere. As a result, Brees is averaging 49 attempts per game versus the San Francisco defense, with a high of 63 in their first meeting in 2011.
The 49ers seem to have it down to a science.
Moreover, Fangio has also found a way to subdue the premier weapons in New Orleans, minimizing the effect of tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles. They are both scoreless in their past two games versus the 49ers, failing to break even 50 yards apiece.
In 2013, the improved Saints were at home and barely beat a Michael Crabtree-less 49er squad. They still haven’t proven they’re the better team.
Advantage: San Francisco
If the Saints lose at Philadelphia, then it will be San Francisco and Seattle in the divisional round.
Let’s face it: If the 49ers are going to get to the Super Bowl, it is very likely that they’re going to have to go through the most hostile environment in sports today (either in a divisional matchup or an NFC title showdown).
CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash., home to the NFC West rival Seahawks, is the loudest, nastiest and easily most intimidating battle prism in the NFL.
There is the most cranked-up crowd, and the architectural design of the stadium bounces the sound waves back down onto the field, giving it that extremely loud decibel level each week. Frankly, the environment is more intimidating than the team itself, and that’s saying something.
That is the first and perhaps most treacherous obstacle the 49ers will have to overcome to win. They can’t allow the setting to derail their game.
Because after that, they still have to match up with a very talented football team that, above all else, has the defense to shut them down. All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom will have the house rocking, bringing psychological warfare to the 49ers receivers.
Outside of getting in the head of the opponent, Seattle's ability to take away receivers and provide the front seven with enough time to kill the play has been an effective formula.
And against the 49ers, it’s hard to dismiss the fact that quarterback Colin Kaepernick and this power O-line have also proven to be susceptible to a big, strong, aggressive pass rush. This particular attack will feature a gaggle of weapons, too, including Bruce Irvin, Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons and the uber-powerful Red Bryant.
They will all be humming.
And offensively, of course, the Seahawks have Russell Wilson behind center, who escapes, creates and distributes the ball better than anyone.
There is not one particular target the 49ers can lock onto in the passing game because Wilson sees the field so well, the ball can be going anywhere at any time, and that places a lot of strain on a defense over the course of a game. And on top of that, they have to respect the threat of tailback Marshawn Lynch.
With this game—the noise, the hatred and the talent—there is always the risk of it getting out of hand early.
Then again, it’s the 49ers that are riding the NFL’s longest win streak heading into the postseason, not Seattle.
The Seahawks just visited Candlestick Park and lost to the 49ers, and then the Arizona Cardinals visited CenturyLink and took down the big, bad Seattle team at its own house where it had been proclaimed unbeatable. So anything can happen at anytime.
Not to mention it’s the postseason, where the unorthodox seems to take precedence.
If anything, the ‘Hawks should be on upset alert. The 49ers have the talent, familiarity and hot streak to pull off the road win.
If the Panthers win their divisional matchup and advance to the NFC Championship, the 49ers will play them.
With Superman at the controls, backed by a dense rushing approach and a very stingy defense that leaves no breathing room, Carolina would give San Francisco a cosmic battle in the playoffs.
They did once before, beating the 49ers at their own house in Week 10.
Physically, this is a team that can match the 49ers, and it has proven it. Spearheaded by Luke Kuechly, the Panthers have one of the better linebacking corps entering the postseason, part of a swarming front seven that does a great job running to the football. The athleticism and intuition by their players in the box is second to none.
This becomes problematic for a 49ers offense that has relied on running and dink-and-dunk throws in the middle of the field to help supplement its big plays.
Without that support, San Francisco might have trouble finding an offensive rhythm once again. These linebackers and defensive linemen for Carolina are able to cut the play off at the head and prevent the Niners offense from establishing any sort of tempo.
And offensively, the Panthers have the ground-and-pound going for them.
Overall, that kind of tenacious, smashmouth approach is what has stunned the 49ers in the past, even if there is a lack of talent (See: Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, St. Louis Rams, etc.). Teams that can match Harbaugh’s guys punch for punch always have a chance.
The Panthers are also 11-1 in their last 12 games of the regular season, so they’re as hot as any team in the NFC.
And then, of course, there's quarterback Cam Newton and the year he's had for Carolina. He's been the difference-maker, taking his game up to a new level—or has he?
Cam Newton "regressed" in 2012 about as much as he "improved" in 2013. pic.twitter.com/XBkiRHxUUk— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 30, 2013
Furthermore, this is a team that lacks dimensions and playmakers in the passing game. And even though they played San Francisco close and won, the Panthers only scored one touchdown. If Newton isn't able to get hot, there is no guarantee they'll be able to score enough points to beat this bolstered San Francisco team.
If you really look at the Week 10 loss, the Niners lost because tight end Vernon Davis had to leave the game with an injury and the offense settled for three red-zone field goals.
The 49ers will have Davis, along with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and a rookie in Quinton Patton who is heating up. Meanwhile, Carolina's one and only star wideout, Steve Smith, is also banged-up, having missed games with a knee injury.
If the Eagles somehow get past the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers, the 49ers would see them in the NFC Championship.
This would be a serendipitous matchup, seeing as how the coming-of-age game for coach Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers happened in Week 4 of 2011 versus the Philadelphia Eagles. That mind-blowing comeback on the road at Lincoln Financial Field against the self-proclaimed “dream team” yielded the results the players needed to see to fully buy in.
However, the Eagles are a very different team now, running a new system, with a new quarterback and a new head coach.
The fact that they’ve played mistake-free football on offense bodes well for them in any potential matchup against San Francisco. The Niners rely on the turnover margin and value the extra possessions their defense can get for them off takeaways. Philly signal-caller Nick Foles won’t allow them that advantage.
The team can also count on him to make the throws he needs to over the course of the game.
Nick Foles in 2013: 27 TD, 2 INT. Best TD-INT ratio in NFL history.— ESPN (@espn) December 30, 2013
However, the significant dimension the Eagles have comes in the form of options, speed and two premier all-purpose weapons in running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Coach Chip Kelly has the stars creating plays again, while he's optimizing the auxiliary players.
Big-play ability and offensive balance will make the Eagles a threat and ultimately prevent San Francisco from clamping down and making them one-dimensional, which has been a killer. That’s a huge, huge advantage for the Eagles—one that teams with lesser talent have been able to expose.
You also have to consider that Foles has not played a defense like this, and when McCoy went up against this run defense in 2011, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman held him to 18 yards on nine carries. So there’s a very real chance this top-ranked defense shuts the Eagles down and Kap and Co. run wild on this leaky defense.
Advantage: San Francisco
Assuming the 49ers have made it this far, here are the three teams San Francisco is most likely to face at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Soon-to-be five-time MVP Peyton Manning has torn through the league like a buzzsaw this year. There have only been a few quarters here and there in which he hasn’t played up to his own standards. Even still, it was the best-ever season for a quarterback, which makes the Broncos a threat to win it.
However, if you look at San Francisco’s history against passing teams like this and elite quarterbacks, it’s clear that the 49ers have a working blueprint. And with this 49ers pass rush knocking him off-balance, it’ll be quite a challenge for Manning. This one could go either way.
New England Patriots
Quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are no stranger to the Super Bowl, but they haven’t won one in quite some time now. They’re on the downslope of this decade-long run and in recent years, they’ve been victimized by the stronger, hungrier team.
And if you’re thinking that the weather at MetLife Stadium favors the Patriots, well, it’s not necessarily so.
The 49ers hiked up to Foxborough last December, beating New England at its own house when no other team had. They got to Brady, intimidated his weapons and out-moxied coach Bill Belichick. The Niners know they can beat this team up and score points on it.
Advantage: San Francisco
Alex Smith and the rough-and-tumble Chiefs?
This would be a banner contest in the Super Bowl. Outside the painfully obvious connections, these two teams match up against one another pretty evenly. Offensively, both pride themselves on playing safe, as well as using the halfbacks and tight ends to advance the football.
The 49ers and Chiefs also both tout hardened 3-4 defenses, which attack the opponent with their outside linebackers and play strong man-to-man defense. K.C. happens to match up very well against San Francisco.