As fate would have it, this team might be bigger and badder than it has been in three years under the new regime, both offensively and defensively. Coach Jim Harbaugh, through hostile conditions and adverse circumstances, managed to pull through and help push his San Francisco 49ers past the Green Bay Packers to advance to the NFC divisional round for a third straight year.
Winning on the road, taking their NFL-best win streak to seven consecutive makes this team awfully scary, no matter who it's pitted against.
The 49ers just held one of the league's most prestigious players to a career low, making him seem almost nonexistent on the football field. Teams don't just stop an MVP quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, especially on his home turf. And in a close game, the 49ers managed to pull out another victory, looking resilient and playing total-team football.
Add it all up and the 49ers are a monster on a mission.
As we reflect on this past win and take a look at the upcoming playoff matchup versus the Carolina Panthers, here are the key takeaways from San Francisco's most recent showing.
A unit that closes games without fail can be a form of a “hot team.”
It’s not necessarily whichever team is riding a month-long point-scoring bonanza.
It’s about finishing games in all different types of situations, proving to be resilient. The 49ers have been well-conditioned this year, escaping a numbers of tight games, several which have come down to a field goal.
On Sunday against the Packers, they weren’t on their game, and they still pulled it out.
This was a game with ruthless conditions, and it was never really clear that the 49ers had control of this game. Even when they were carrying the momentum, they weren’t scoring anything more than field goals. It looked like one of their out-of-character games—one they’ve been known to lose.
But lately in 2013, when this team has been against the ropes, they’ve always come roaring back.
Harbaugh: Didn't think we were going to pull that off, didjya? It's not our first time. #49ers— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone80) January 6, 2014
The dynamic part about Colin Kaepernick as a quarterback is that he is the player who touches the ball on every offensive snap, and he has the rare physical ability to take whatever the defense gives him.
If the 49ers were to make any sort of run this year, they had to have that multi-tooled threat working.
During San Francisco’s end-of-the-season win streak, Kaepernick was wheeling and dealing like his old self. There was an evident comfort level, as the risk-taking began to show up more and more in his game, paying dividends once again. The return of wideout Michael Crabtree aided in this.
But the bottom line is, the offense is fully functional again, and he is the lightning rod in the middle making it all go.
On Sunday, Kap generated 325 all-purpose yards (227 passing, 98 rushing) and a score, but the most impressive part was when the big plays came. Third down and in the fourth quarter, he was hitting on all cylinders, revealing the clutch factor of his game again, like we witnessed in the playoffs in 2012.
Moreover, it was clear to see that the game plan certainly wasn’t structured around the run, as the rushing attempts by the backs had no rhythm, and consecutive attempts were few and far between. The 49ers wanted to attack in the air and allow Kaepernick to scramble versus man coverage.
This win was on him. He made it happen.
That is definitely a changeup as most would still say this is Frank Gore’s offense. But the hierarchal strides Kap has taken as a leader and offensive producer are really beginning to shift this unit under his control. And that’s exactly what the 49ers need in order to win championships.
The 49ers defense certainly travels well, don’t you think?
It’s going to have to in order to complete this prospective return trip to the Super Bowl.
Critics would be hard-pressed to find a more complete unit than this one, and it's faced a ton of adversity this season, which only strengthens its case. Every position has been marred by injury or an unforeseeable circumstance.
Nevertheless, a disciplined secondary that performs despite injury, combined with that tenacious linebacking corps, is truly a difference-maker. The Niners are in every single game because this defense has a bar of about 17 or 20 points, and more often than not, teams can’t score anymore than that.
Not even quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers could score at their own house.
The game-changer is now proving to be rush linebacker Aldon Smith, coming off the edge, as well as defensive tackle Justin Smith, who is now healthy for the postseason.
Both of these players were injured last year, sending an EMP-like shockwave, disabling or diminishing the rest of San Francisco’s defense. Even though the 49ers got to the big game last year, they weren’t at 100 percent. But they returned this year, lost other key players but appear stronger than ever.
This is perhaps the best defense in the franchise’s history.
But this pressure-bringing duo of Smith and Smith is a key cog in the 49ers' defensive unit and one the 49ers always rely on to generate pressure while dropping seven or eight men back into coverage. It’s been a tremendous strategic advantage, particularly in the playoffs when the 49ers are seeing more pass-heavy teams.
Obvious passing situations have made it so it favors the 49ers defense.
The 49ers hit hard, don’t allow 100-yard rushers, they play sound assignment-based football within the scheme and there is an understanding of when it’s OK to take chances, which results in the turnovers. This defense is as deep, talented and well-coached as any unit in maybe the past 10 years.
That being said, this unit is championship-caliber, and the team’s ace in the hole in every potential upcoming game from here on out.
Aaron Rodgers: 177 yards passing; his fewest in a postseason game in his career— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 6, 2014
This has potential to be a silent killer if it continues to be an issue for the offense.
For one reason or another, maybe several, the 49ers offense becomes blatantly discombobulated on the sidelines. Timeouts are burned, delay-of-game and false-start penalties are taken and, inevitably, drives come to a screeching halt. It prevents the offense from establishing a rhythm and puts the players in unfavorable scenarios.
In a close game, they didn’t leave themselves any timeouts in either half and perhaps the most embarrassing moment versus Green Bay was on the first play of the second half, the 49ers didn't have a call ready. They just can’t afford to be that disorganized and unprepared.
If they are to get a win at Carolina next week, or to even think of getting one at the deafening CenturyLink Field in Seattle, they need some sort of fail-safe on game day. Perhaps, there needs to be a new square on the call sheet of plays that are OK to run on any down-and-distance combo.
Any alternatives are needed. It's something that deserves attention. It puts them at too much of a disadvantage to ignore.
The positive, though, if there is one, is that the 49ers won this game regardless of nearly half-a-dozen clock-management blunders.
The 49ers benefitted from a lot of little things here and have done so over the course of the season.
But on Sunday, it was even more evident in a game that was as tight as it was all the way through.
In the end, the 49ers didn’t make that many more plays than the Packers, but they made them when it counted. There were a number of supplementary plays or actions by players that helped this team.
One of the bigger deals throughout the game was return man LaMichael James, who took out three kickoffs at 26.0 yards a pop. He also had two punt returns with a 10.0-yards-per-carry average. This help set up scoring drives and really helped in a game that had a lot to do with field position.
James created plays for the 49ers.
Then there were contributions like Frank Gore’s blocking, which was another huge factor in this game that went under the radar. The veteran back may not have had the best day on the ground himself, but he kept Kap clean in the pocket and ran downfield with him, taking out potential tacklers.
The play by left defensive tackle Ray McDonald was also right up there.
The 49ers' veteran defender was setting the edge, collapsing the pocket back into Rodgers and stopping the run. It was a great display of effort by him. In fact, you could argue the reason that Aldon Smith had such a productive outing was that McDonald was pushing the right tackle into Rodgers’ face, causing him to step back on more than one occasion.
And who could ignore the leg of place-kicker Phil Dawson and the punt-and-cover unit.
Everybody was pitching in, helping the 49ers stay alive in this game and inch out a victory in a win-or-go-home scenario.
Forty-niners wideout Michael Crabtree is cementing his case as a top-10 wide receiver in the game today. His ability to consistently get a release off the line, improvise with his quarterback, make amazing hands catches, be a clutch receiver on third down and pick up tough yards after the catch makes him the total package.
On Sunday, Crabtree led the 49ers in targets with 13 (six more than Vernon Davis).
He would finish with eight grabs for 125 big yards. What was so inspiring about his performance was that Crabtree was able to improvise after the play was broken and bail his quarterback out. That kind of chemistry is hard to come by and can be a real X-factor for this offense in the playoffs.
Defenses have a tough time getting the 49ers off the field because of that connection.
It seems that no matter how daunting the situation, the offense has a chance because those two can make things happen. It’s an indefensible attack. Right now, Crabtree is averaging seven catches and 102.5 yards per game in the postseason with Kaepernick.
At the postgame press conference, Harbaugh called Crabtree "the best hands catcher of all time."
That is quite a statement from the coach, but it's not his first time making it. Given his pedigree and where he is at in his career right now, it should be no surprise Crabtree is ready to shoulder this offense. Also, now that he has a receiver opposite him, this QB-WR tandem can really thrive. It may be what the 49ers ride to another title appearance.
Harbaugh: "If my life depended on it and somebody had to catch a ball, I’d enlist Michael Crabtree to do it."— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) January 6, 2014
The notion that most bought into and why the 49ers got a pass for really not living up to their potential offensively this season was because most were under the belief that they were not revealing 100 percent of the playbook. They like to skate by, showing as little as possible.
It's no mystery that this team likes to keep things close to the vest to give themselves an advantage later on, and it’s possible they still are.
But having been that close to elimination at times, it’s hard to imagine why the 49ers would be at half-speed. Maybe in reality, this is simply true-to-life inconsistency with the San Francisco offense. It's as loaded as it gets in the NFL, but the 49ers don’t field a top-10 unit like their personnel would indicate.
The offense is sluggish and out of sync at times, and many have pointed their finger at the offensive coordinator and/or the head coach.
What was worrisome was that the 49ers not only continued to roll with a pass-first game plan, which has cost them wins, but there was also nothing new about their game, and their biggest area of struggle remained. There was not one particularly new or impressive play drawn up.
The 49ers used the same personnel for the most part, ignoring their two backup running backs and No. 2 tight end.
The red-zone issues also persisted, which is what made this such a tight game. The lead changes were constant because the 49ers couldn’t create any separation by scoring touchdowns. Early on, it was 6-0, instead of 14-0 or 10-0 at the least. This allowed the Packers to score, pick up momentum and make it a game.
With all the weapons the 49ers have, you’d like to see a more aggressive, consistent scoring machine on the field. They haven’t been that. With more complete teams like the Panthers, Seahawks and New Orleans Saints, all of which can score and play defense, the 49ers must learn to finish drives.
Answer: The 49ers will face off against a top-rated defense in the Panthers.
Like we talked about, the San Francisco offense struggled to sustain drives and score points, which is inexcusable. The Panthers are not going to allow it the same breathing room. They’re fully capable of hitting back, scoring points and keeping the Niners out of the end zone.
With quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly at the nucleus of the offense and defense, respectively, this is a more complete ballclub.
A performance like the one the 49ers put forth on Sunday could have easily resulted in an elimination against this Panthers team. Red-zone issues could end them. They also have to instill a 50-50 balance on offense against a multidimensional defensive unit, which they did not display on Sunday.
Defensively, coordinator Vic Fangio and the 49ers just need to keep doing what they’re doing.
But the 49ers certainly know Carolina is more of a competitor to them than Green Bay. They match up better. While the 49ers are 4-0 versus the Packers under Harbaugh, they are 0-1 versus the Panthers. Granted, the Niners did not have tight ends McDonald or Davis, or even Crabtree in their first meeting in the season, but the Panthers are as hot as any team.
And they’ll be at home.
This will be a test, and the 49ers need to continue to improve, even in the playoffs, if they hope to stay in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy.