This time last season, the San Francisco 49ers were enjoying a well-earned bye week on the way to a sixth Super Bowl appearance. Instead of lounging on the couch to watch the competition, however, the 2014 49ers will have to huddle up through frigid temperatures in Green Bay this Sunday.
On the bright side, the last three Super Bowl champions all played a game in the Wild Card Round, including a team that actually entered the postseason as a Wild Card. Recent seasons have favored the hottest team over the best team, which could bode well for San Francisco.
After coming up five yards short of the Lombardi Trophy last season, the 49ers are motivated to redeem themselves this year. To make it that far, several players will have to provide the heroics through four games away from home.
While some familiar faces will have to shoulder the load, there will also have to be unsung heroes at critical moments.
If the 49ers are going to come out victorious in this winter, the following players will be key to their run. Wherever the road to the Super Bowl takes San Francisco, these X-factors will have to play well for the team to advance.
All statistics and rankings according to Pro Football Reference, unless otherwise noted.
WR Quinton Patton
Lofty expectations quickly surrounded the rookie wide receiver, but a foot injury held Quinton Patton out for most of his debut season. With veteran receiver Mario Manningham now placed on injured reserve, however, it's up to Patton to step up as the 49ers' No. 3 target.
Patton only recorded two catches for 34 yards last week in Arizona, but he added a 26-yard rush on an end around and pulled in a clutch 29-yard reception on the game's final drive. For a passing offense that has struggled all year, Patton's emergence could put the 49ers over the top at the right time.
K Phil Dawson
Yes, it's difficult to say that a kicker can "carry" a team to the Super Bowl, but the 49ers get plenty of use out of veteran Phil Dawson. In his first season in San Francisco, he was tied for sixth in the NFL with 36 field-goal attempts.
He put 32 of them through the uprights, including a franchise-record streak of 27 in a row that ended in Week 17. According to Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com, Dawson is now No. 2 in franchise history for single-season marks in points (140) and field goals (32).
If any team can be expected to call on the kicker for a big moment, the 49ers are the safest bet.
At his press conference on Thursday, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio spoke about linebacker Ahmad Brooks' sack drought since Week 12.
"He’s been playing well," Fangio said, according to 49ers.com. "Sometimes the sacks can go dry sometimes. And that’s been the case with him recently. Overall his play has been good."
Brooks finished 2013 tied with linebacker Aldon Smith for the team lead with 8.5 sacks and had a three-game stretch with five sacks in the middle of the year. He was also named to his first Pro Bowl after a very solid campaign.
With quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees in the NFC playoff picture, rushing the passer will be critical. If Brooks and Smith can get after the quarterback consistently, the 49ers will be much better for it.
While he is unlikely to take home the award, linebacker NaVorro Bowman put quite the exclamation mark on his case for Defensive Player of the Year.
As noted by Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, Bowman registered 63 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in the month of December. He also picked off two passes, returning one for a playoff-clinching touchdown en route to receiving NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors.
He is playing on another level right now, and maintaining that level of play will be critical for San Francisco in the playoffs. The 49ers will have to stop the run to win road games in cold weather, and Bowman will play a key role in that.
Paired with fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis, Bowman is the hottest defender in the league right now. Carrying that momentum into the postseason would be great news in San Francisco.
With 85 catches, 1179 yards and seven touchdowns, he turned in his best season since 2009. Meanwhile, Crabtree continues to find his form after tearing his Achilles tendon in May when Manningham ended his season on injured reserve.
After scoring in the past two games, Boldin holds the key to the 49ers passing offense. Tight end Vernon Davis may be the greater big-play threat, but it's hard to find a more consistent receiver than the sure-handed Boldin.
Boldin was brought in to provide a secondary target, but he's played like a main man in 2013. Crabtree, Davis and rookie Quinton Patton will all play important roles, but Boldin's rapport with quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be the connection to watch in January.
The 49ers finished seventh in passing defense this season, but the injury bug hasn't been kind to the secondary thus far.
Cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Eric Wright have missed time with injuries, and safety Eric Reid left two games with concussion issues. According to 49ers.com, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has contingency plans for playing without cornerback Carlos Rogers, who suffered a hamstring injury in the regular-season finale.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock has come out of nowhere this season to assume a starting role, earning a four-year extension in the process. His improved play has been a highlight in an overall impressive secondary, in addition to Reid's emergence as a rookie.
The 49ers' road to the Super Bowl could include matchups against the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. For those scoring at home, that means Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Peyton Manning under the opposite center, respectively.
Brock will have to step up against that murderer's row of quarterbacks for the 49ers to stand a chance, especially if injuries continue to nag this team.
Whether it's stating the obvious or not, is there any other way to close this list?
No 49er has faced the criticism, praise, scrutiny and justification this season than quarterback Colin Kaepernick. While his season fell short of the unfair expectations, he still became the first 49ers quarterback to throw for 20 touchdowns since Jeff Garcia in 2002.
At times, he struggled, but he finished as the seventh-ranked passer in the NFL, according to ESPN's Total QBR statistic. His play markedly improved as the season progressed, and that will need to continue for the 49ers to make a serious run in 2014.
Kaepernick was the catalyst for the NFC champions in 2013, and history will have to repeat itself for the team to have another shot at the Big Dance. Even with an elite defense and a bruising running game, San Francisco will only go as far as Kaepernick takes it.
If he can find that ideal blend of run and pass that he mastered in last year's playoffs, the 49ers will continue to roll in 2014. The road to Super Bowl XLVIII could go through Seattle, which has so far proved to be Kaepernick's house of horrors during his short career.
For the 49ers to take home the hardware, Kap will most likely have to confront his demons head on. How the young signal-caller responds will determine how the story unfolds.
Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @smeaton49.