The way this year’s playoffs worked out is somewhat reminiscent of the early 1990s, when Sports Illustrated went so far as to call the NFC Championship battles between San Francisco and the Dallas Cowboys the real Super Bowl.
This was an era when the Super Bowl was often anticlimactic, as the NFC opened up a 13-game win streak over the AFC, with the 49ers picking up four Super Bowl titles and appearing in seven NFC Championship Games. Especially in the early ‘90s, it was generally agreed the best team in football was whoever came out on top of the San Francisco-Dallas battles.
The same situation seems to be setting up now. After all, the 49ers came within a play of knocking the Seahawks off in CenturyLink Field. That’s a lot better than the Denver Broncos and their record-setting offense managed in the Super Bowl.
Are these the two best teams in the NFL, and will they keep battling for years to come?
Both the 49ers and Seahawks are set up to return most of their starters next season. The Seahawks, especially, are built on a high number of rookie contracts, including quarterback Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman. While one day the salary-cap ramifications of having all these talented players in one space will hit them hard, they’ll be back at nearly full strength in 2014.
49ers fans should feel a little better about Colin Kaepernick’s three turnovers in the NFC Championship Game, to boot. Newly crowned MVP Peyton Manning turned the ball over three times himself—you just have to tip your cap, acknowledging the 2013 Seattle defense as one of the best to ever play the game, and plan to get better next season.
Don’t be surprised if the NFL and NBC tab San Francisco and Seattle to play in the season opener—the possibility has already been raised by many.
The thing that really seems to stand in the way of the two franchises opening the season against one another is the potential desire of the NFL to showcase the 49ers’ new home stadium in prime time during Week 1. Otherwise, San Francisco will likely be tabbed to watch as Seattle unveils its Super Bowl banner during the kickoff game.
How can the 49ers’ flip the script and celebrate their sixth Super Bowl title next season? How can they get past Seattle, their biggest rival at the moment?
They need speed at the receiver position. A re-signed Anquan Boldin and a healthy Michael Crabtree are a great one-two punch, but neither matches Seattle’s Percy Harvin in terms of speed. A burner on the outside would help spread out Seattle’s physical press coverage, adding a new dimension to the attack.
They need a better secondary, a faster secondary. Wilson’s ability to scramble out of danger while still scanning downfield presses the secondary. The receivers have time to change their routes and work their way open, meaning the secondary needs to be able to recover quickly to make plays on some of those broken, sandlot-style improvisations Seattle works so well.
Kaepernick needs to continue to develop, especially in his ability to transition to his second and third reads. At times, including on the interceptions in the NFC Championship Game, Kaepernick seems to have a tendency to lock in on a receiver. That habit makes it too easy for opposing defenders to pick up on the play and break it up.
Frank Gore’s either going to need to continue to defy Father Time, or he’s going to have to be supplanted, possibly even replaced. Marcus Lattimore is going to need to step up in his first full, healthy season in San Francisco—the run game was shut down against Seattle in the NFC Championship, forcing San Francisco into a one-dimensional attack.
Who will win the NFC West next season?
You have to tip your cap to Seattle—the Seahawks performed fantastically from beginning to end and deserved their Super Bowl win. Now, the process of dethroning them begins—and San Francisco looks to be ready.