The 49ers are playoff bound...but who will they meet along the way?
With their ongoing six-game win streak, no playoff team enters the postseason hotter than the San Francisco 49ers. If you asked them now, they would likely say that they welcome the challenge of any of the other 11 playoff teams. Coach Jim Harbaugh put it succinctly in his Wednesday press conference, saying “We're going to take our best players and see if we can go beat their best players."
Perhaps, then, saying that there are any players the 49ers don’t want to face is a misnomer. However, that’s not to say that the 49ers find all opponents equal. If they could somehow sub out the NFC playoff teams for the likes of Jacksonville, Houston or Oakland, I’m sure they would sleep better at night—it’s just common sense.
This list, then, is of the 10 players or units the 49ers will likely have to spend the most time dealing with if they want to be crowned champions at the end of Super Bowl XLVIII.
To that extent, remember, matchups matter. While whichever team ends up facing Jamaal Charles will spend an inordinate amount of energy attempting to shut him down, the fact that the 49ers are unlikely to meet the Chiefs this postseason, coupled with their solid run defense, won’t place him on this list. It’s not the 10 best players in the playoffs—just the 10 the 49ers would theoretically have to spend the most time thinking about.
That’s why you won’t see any Chargers or Colts on this list. While potential Super Bowl matchups were considered, matchups against teams like Green Bay or Seattle are much more likely to happen, and thus were focused upon.
Clear? Good—off we go.
The Packers with a run game? It's more likely than you think.
Lacy’s been a revelation for Green Bay this season, his first out of Alabama. For years, the Packers have struggled to get anything going on the ground, with their last 1,000-yard rusher before this season being Ryan Grant back in 2009. This has led to the team being rather one-dimensional—from 2010 to 2012, it never finished higher than 20th in the league in rushing, while sitting in the top 10 in passing each and every year.
Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards this year to lead the Packers and has provided them with a legitimate option on the ground. They no longer merely rush to keep offenses honest, as it was Lacy and the run game that helped keep them afloat when Aaron Rodgers missed time this season. Without Lacy, the Packers would not be in the playoffs today. That’s why he’s battling with Keenan Allen for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Against San Francisco in Week 1, Lacy had a poor day—he only gained 41 yards on 14 carries. Since he came back from a concussion in Week 5, however, Lacy has been dynamite—he’s rushed for 10 touchdowns in his last 11 games and regularly totes the rock 20 times a game. With Rodgers still playing himself into game shape, the Packers will be dependent on their rush game to win Sunday’s matchup with San Francisco, so stopping Lacy in his tracks will be key.
Nelson torched the 49ers back in Week 1
No Packer hurt the 49ers more in the Week 1 matchup than Nelson. He was targeted 10 times, resulting in seven catches for 130 yards and a touchdown. Together with Randall Cobb, he torched the 49ers secondary and generally kept the Packers in the game.
It’s been a career-best season for Nelson, with 1,314 receiving yards breaking his 2011 mark of 1,263 yards, and he’s still Green Bay's No. 1 target. The attention last week was on the returns of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb, but it was Nelson who came down with 161 receiving yards in the crucial NFC North quasi-championship game against Chicago last week—and that was with the flu. He’s healthy now, and so is his quarterback; catching passes from Rodgers is much easier than catching them from Matt Flynn or Scott Tolzien.
The good news for 49ers fans is that most of Nelson’s Week 1 work came against Nnamdi Asomugah, who is long gone. The bad news is that Carlos Rogers is questionable with a tweaked hamstring and may or may not be out there on Sunday. You’d much rather have Rogers, Tarrell Brown or Tramaine Brock on Nelson and not have to go down to normal dime cornerback Eric Wright. That’s definitely a matchup to watch on Sunday.
No Gorilla Grodd here—just the Legion of Boom.
Whether it’s in the divisional round or the conference championship, it seems very likely that if the 49ers want to make it to the Super Bowl, they’re going to have to go into CenturyLink Field and pull out a road win against the Seattle Seahawks. It seems destined—the amount of trash talk that’s gone back and forth between the two teams and their fanbases makes anything other than a rubber match between the two clubs seem anticlimactic.
The Seahawks pass defense is what brought Seattle the No. 1 overall seed. That includes both the pass rush, which has racked up 43 sacks on the year, and the secondary, nicknamed the "Legion of Boom." With their powers combined, they’ve racked up the highest pass-defense grade in football this season, according to Football Outsiders.
One of the Legion, Brandon Browner, is out, having been suspended indefinitely for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The other three—Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor—are all around and raring to go, and it would not be at all a surprise to see any or all of them have very large postseason performances.
In the 49ers' game in Seattle, those three players combined to allow only four receptions on nine targets for 39 yards, with three interceptions to boot. Up in the noise and havoc of Seattle, they’re an incredibly potent weapon—one the 49ers would have to crack if they wanted to advance.
In what looks like it will be an ongoing competition for years to come in the NFC West, Russell Wilson outplayed Colin Kaepernick this season. With 3,357 passing yards and a quarterback rating of 101.2, Wilson definitely earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl nod. While the Seahawk offense has floundered a little bit over the last month or so, Wilson’s still been doing damage with both his arm and his legs throughout the year.
He’s only had a handful of subpar games, but two of them, it can be argued, came against the 49ers. In the matchup in Seattle, Wilson was held to only eight completions all night long for 142 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The trip to San Francisco wasn’t much better, with 15 completions only going for 199 yards, one touchdown and one interception. It’s nothing like some of the days he’s had this season against other playoff teams. He shredded New Orleans for 310 yards and three touchdowns, for instance, and had very similar numbers Week 1 against Carolina.
Just because Wilson had two subpar days against the 49ers this season doesn’t mean they can write him off. Remember, last season’s matchup in Seattle saw Wilson put up four touchdowns on the 49ers while also scrambling for nearly 60 yards. He’s a dangerous weapon, one that could come uncorked at any time.
Beast Mode's caused tremors once again this season.
2013 was not quite a repeat of Lynch’s amazing 2012 season—he only managed 1,257 yards, down almost 20 yards per game from last year. His 12 rushing touchdowns still lead the league, however, and he’s a solid contributor week in and week out. He’s gone over 100 all-purpose yards eight times this season and was only held under 50 once, in Week 8 against St. Louis, when he only got eight touches. His days aren’t always earth-shattering—though they are occasionally earth-quaking—but they nearly always contribute positively to Seattle’s fortunes.
Against San Francisco, Lynch racked up 135 yards and three touchdowns in Seattle, while being held to only 72 yards and a score in the rematch in San Francisco. The numbers hide some of the level of the performance, too—Lynch’s offensive line didn’t get much blocking, especially in the first matchup. It was Lynch practically willing himself for yards. There were no pretty gashes into the secondary, as he fought his way for consistent, tough gains.
With Lynch and Wilson, the Seahawks can win even if one aspect of their offense is taken out or has an off night. That’s what makes them so dangerous—the number of different ways they can beat you. It’s not enough just to keep Wilson in the pocket, nor is it enough to stack the box and prevent Lynch from running over you. You have to manage to shut both players down simultaneously, a tall task for even the best teams.
Hardy's a balanced player, able to play the run or the pass with equal ease.
In all likelihood, a San Francisco Super Bowl run would also see the 49ers forced to travel to Carolina to try to avenge Week 10’s 10-9 loss to the Panthers. In that one, they shut down the Panthers offense fairly well, but it was the Carolina defense that ended up forcing the 49ers to come up short.
Greg Hardy leads the Panthers with 15 sacks, and while he was unable to bring Colin Kaepernick down in the matchup earlier this season, he did force five quarterback hurries, with a couple of stops in the running game added on to a very solid day. The matchup with Joe Staley was a matchup of two titans—or Krakens, if you prefer Hardy’s nickname—and both came off quite well. If the teams match up in the playoffs once more, it’s something to keep an eye on for aficionados of solid line play.
Hardy earned his first Pro Bowl nod this year—just in time, too, as he’s scheduled to be a big-name free agent this offseason. With every stellar performance, his value keeps going up and up, so he’ll have that tiny crumb of extra motivation to perform big this postseason, if the playoffs weren’t enough for him to begin with. He’s hot at the moment, too. Over the past two weeks, Hardy’s racked up seven sacks and 21 quarterback pressures. He’s on a roll and looks to continue that momentum through the playoffs.
Do you prefer Kuechly or Willis?
Who’s the best middle linebacker in football? The 49ers have two strong candidates for that honor, but the Panthers counter with one of their own—Luke Kuechly, a player poised to be a Pro Bowler for years to come.
Kuechly flies all around the field and is a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year this season. He leads Carolina in tackles and racked up 10 against San Francisco, with six of them registering as failed plays for the offense. He also found himself in coverage on 30 plays in the Week 10 matchup against San Francisco and only allowed one completion—quite an accomplishment, considering many of those coverages saw him one-on-one with Vernon Davis.
If you want to watch one game to see how good Kuechly can be, pop in the tape of the second game against New Orleans. In that one, he was officially credited with 24 tackles, though those numbers are typically a bit inflated when playing at home. He also had five assists and eight stops—not to mention an interception in coverage against Jimmy Graham. It was a clinic in everything Kuechly does well—his sideline-to-sideline tackling abilities, his speed to run down opposing ball-carriers, his pass-coverage chops and his ability to rise to the occasion in big games. He’s a force in the middle of the football field.
A Philadelphia-San Francisco matchup is somewhat unlikely, not being possible until the NFC Championship Game, but if the two teams do match up, the 49ers will have to find some way of slowing down the NFL’s leading rusher in LeSean McCoy.
McCoy’s 1,607 yards rushing were only the tip of the iceberg—he added 539 yards in the receiving game, as well, totaling 2,146 combined yards from scrimmage. Only Chris Johnson, Arian Foster and Adrian Peterson have had bigger seasons in the past five years than McCoy; he’s really been a crucial component in translating Chip Kelly’s offense to the pros.
Under the quick pace, McCoy touched the ball 366 times this season, by far the most in his NFL career. It’s quite a change going from Andy Reid’s offense, in which the running game seemed to disappear for vast stretches of contests, to Chip Kelly’s system, in which backs are fed the rock consistently. McCoy’s excelled in both systems, proving his versatility.
McCoy set a Philadelphia franchise record this season with six games of 130 or more yards rushing. His ability to change directions, bouncing to the outside and then cutting up field, is unparalleled. He’s not just a highlight machine, though—he’s consistent, as well. His 52 percent success rate isn’t tops in the league this season, but it’s pretty darn close—and among the top 10, only McCoy and Demarco Murray toted the ball even 200 times. Having that high a success rate on over 300 carries is amazing and is the key to a deep Philadelphia run this season.
The only way the 49ers can send Candlestick Park off with one more game is if both they and New Orleans win out through the playoffs, setting up a rematch of the 49ers' Week 11 loss to the Saints.
To keep said hypothetical matchup from being a loss, Cameron Jordan would have to be contained. Everyone knows about Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and the offense, but that same offense was around last season, with the Saints missing the playoffs entirely.
It’s the improvement on defense that has brought New Orleans back to the postseason, and Jordan leads the way in the pass rush. Jordan has 77 quarterback pressures this season, resulting in 12.5 sacks. He may not be particularly special when it comes to run defense, but when it comes to the pass rush, he holds up next to any other defensive end in the league.
In the Week 11 matchup, Jordan had what, by his standards, was an off day—six quarterback pressures, including just one sack and a batted pass. As a right end, you’d think he’d have matched up mostly with Joe Staley, but Staley was able to have a clean sheet on the day, not allowing a single pressure. Jordan had to go inside against Mike Iupati and Adam Snyder to have any real success. Staley would be called on once more to keep Kaepernick upright should he line up across from the first-time Pro Bowler once more.
I'll pass, thanks.
This season, Peyton Manning broke the record for touchdown passes in a season, with 55.
He broke the record for passing yards, with 5,477.
He had nine games with four passing touchdowns, an NFL record. He had two passing touchdowns in all but one game, tying an NFL record.
He had four 400-yard passing games, an NFL record.
In all but one week, he had a QB rating of 90 or more, tying his own NFL record.
In Week 1, he threw seven touchdown passes, tying the NFL record.
He passed the 60,000-yard mark, joining Brett Favre and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to ever accomplish that feat.
Yeah, that’s a fairly tough matchup to game-plan for. Say all you want about Manning’s playoff record, or his record in the cold or his record in the wind—if I’m the 49ers, I’d still much rather see Andy Dalton or Alex Smith standing on the other side of the field instead of arguably the greatest to ever play the position.