The 49ers Eric Reid (No. 35), Aldon Smith (No. 99) and yes—even Michael Wilhoite (No. 57)—would have helped conquer the Denver Broncos.
Risk of sounding like sour grapes aside, the San Francisco 49ers would have won Super Bowl XLVIII.
They would have beaten the Denver Broncos convincingly and earned the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Perhaps not in a 43-8 beat-down fashion—a la the Seattle Seahawks—but certainly in a way in which San Francisco’s elite defense would have conquered a record-setting offense.
Because, after all, defense wins championships, and high-scoring offenses do not.
Even ones without a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Pro Bowl lineman.
So in the spirit of revisionist amusement, let’s break down the four reasons why the 49ers would have indeed emerged victorious against the Broncos on Sunday.
4. Hard Hitters and Run Stoppers
Let’s first elucidate that there’s only one Kam Chancellor living and breathing in the world today.
But every defense need not possess a 6’3’’, 232-pound strong safety to inflict fear in opposing receivers or stop the opposition’s rushing attack.
The 49ers' own Donte Whitner is renowned—in both good ways and bad—for his hard-hitting style of play.
Questionable fines and name changes notwithstanding, he routinely delivers crushing blows down the field, over the middle and against the run. It’s a method that utilizes both football intelligence and menacing force.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) awarded him the No. 6 ranking (six spots ahead of Chancellor) for his work in coverage and run defense. That includes a positive rating against Seattle in the conference championship.
Whitner—and the 49ers defense as a whole, for that matter—would match up well with the skittish Broncos receivers and running backs.
Denver simply had not experienced an opposing contingent as formidable as San Francisco’s—ferocious, high-IQ, sure-tackling and comprehensively skilled wrapped all in one.
Even without MVP-caliber NaVorro Bowman, perennial Pro Bowler linebacker Patrick Willis and excellent reserve Michael Wilhoite would have locked down the middle. The Broncos Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker would not have roamed unabated on crossing routes or underneath.
Throw in Eric Decker in three-wide-receiver sets, and the 49ers would still have performed up to snuff with their physicality and smarts.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock rated ninth in coverage with help from a measly 55.4 completion percentage allowed. Carlos Rogers, meanwhile, was No. 1 out of the slot with just 11.6 cover snaps per reception.
This pass defense all told allowed the sixth-fewest 20-plus-yard plays on the season (top-three heading into Week 17). Stellar rookie—and Pro Bowl—free safety Eric Reid helped foster that impressive statistic.
Which 49ers strength would have proven most significant against the Broncos?
San Francisco surrendered just one 100-yard rusher all year. And that came three weeks after the regular season ended (not to mention to its kryptonite-like “Beast Mode” nemesis).
Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball would have had little, if any, success with the likes of tackles Glenn Dorsey and Justin Smith controlling the line of scrimmage. Fellow PFF top-10 run-stuffers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks would have sealed any lanes to the outside as well.
Indeed, the Broncos suspect offensive line is proof positive why San Francisco would have dominated defensively.
Speaking of which…
3. Pass-Rushing Front Seven
A blocking front that helped foster 27 rushing yards total and an unsightly 1.9-yard average was equally deficient in pass protection versus Seattle.
Denver gave up only one sack but allowed 15 total quarterback pressures per Pro Football Focus.
That’s an unacceptably gargantuan number when Peyton Manning is the one operating behind center.
To wit, he suffered zero sacks and a mere 12 pressures over his previous two playoff wins combined.
The stat brains at PFF note that Manning completed just 53.3 percent of his throws when under pressure, including one sack, two interceptions and a 31.7 passer rating on Sunday.
Consistently take No. 18 off his spot and not even his rapid-fire release and league-low 2.36 seconds in the pocket (pre-throw) can save him from game-breaking inaccuracy.
Enter: the 49ers.
San Francisco amassed 38 sacks in the regular season, only six fewer than the Seahawks.
They racked up a whopping 304 pressures against opposing quarterbacks this year. An additional 10 sacks and 40 pressures came against the Carolina Panthers’ and Seahawks’ stout offensive lines in the playoffs.
The Broncos’ overachieving front would surely have succumbed in similar fashion.
Justin and Aldon Smith would have employed their patented stunts against left tackle Chris Clark and guard Zane Beadles. Brooks would have overwhelmed Orlando Franklin on the right side, with Willis nearly seamlessly filling in for Bowman as an interior rusher.
This Red and Gold foursome accrued 28 sacks and 169 pressures in 2013, and another nine and 43 in the postseason. Maintaining this level of play against a vulnerable line on a Super Bowl stage would not have been a problem.
We’ll concede two touchdown passes to Manning in this hypothetical matchup. Only the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked contingent could have limited him to just one (and eight points).
Forcing turnovers and scoring shortly thereafter, on the other hand, is a 49ers specialty.
2. Takeaway Proficiency
No team in the NFL matched Seattle’s penchant for defensive robbery.
But the 49ers came close.
San Francisco ranked third in the NFC (and fourth in the NFL) with 30 takeaways. It produced 12 off fumbles and 18 via interceptions.
Brock (five) and Reid (four) were tied for third and fourth, respectively, in the latter category.
Willis, Whitner and Aldon Smith combined for another three turnovers in the playoffs (more to come on subsequent benefits).
During Sunday’s Super Bowl showcase, the Seahawks picked off Manning twice and recovered two fumbles. They scored following three of those turnovers.
Add in a safety on the very first play from scrimmage, and Seattle piled up 26 points off Denver’s miscues.
The majority of this game-turning production arose via domination at the line of scrimmage by the Seahawks’ front-seven personnel. They stopped the run, forced Manning into contested throws and capitalized on the Broncos mistakes.
San Francisco was the only team outside of Seattle capable of doing the same.
1. Opportunistic Scoring, Ball-Control Offense
Here is where the 49ers own supremacy over their NFC West rivals (nearly) across the board. And where they would, in turn, hold an advantage over the Broncos.
Touchdowns Off Turnovers
T-3. 49ers (five)
T-4. Seahawks (four)
Average Time of Possession
13. 49ers (30:34)
14. Seahawks (30:32)
T-2. 49ers (18)
T-3. Seahawks (19)
1. Seahawks (plus-20)
T-4. 49ers (plus-12)
Net Turnover Points
2. 49ers (84)
3. Seahawks (82)
San Francisco took the ball away, rarely coughed it up, controlled the clock with the Frank Gore-led rush offense (No. 4) and scored more overall points off turnovers than 30 other teams.
Denver, meanwhile, lost possession the ninth-most times in the regular season and forced fewer takeaways than the 49ers. It had a wholly mediocre turnover differential (zero) as well—especially for an otherwise upper-echelon team.
Simply put, the 49ers would have outclassed the Broncos in all the relevant categories.
They would have kept Manning off the field and limited his end-zone success when on it. They would have supplemented their 11th-ranked scoring offense with opportunistic points on defense and special teams.
Again, the old adage dictates that defense wins championships. History says that potent offenses do not.
Would the 49ers’ No. 5 corps have proven sufficient over the Broncos’ No. 1 record-setter?
Maybe not to the tune of a 35-point embarrassment, but definitely enough for a sixth Lombardi.
The Red and Gold can only hope that such theoretical fortune turns literal in 2014.
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