4 Reasons the San Francisco 49ers Will Last in the NFL Playoffs

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IOctober 24, 2011

4 Reasons the San Francisco 49ers Will Last in the NFL Playoffs

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    It is so easy to look at the numbers and assess by virtue of stats. But those in the NFL know that each game, each season is a different factor. What happened in 2010 doesn’t mean too much come 2011. For that matter, what happened in September may have little bearing on November.

    Few, if any, said Buffalo would be an offensive juggernaut. For that matter, who said back in July that Indianapolis would be winless? But then, who new back then that Peyton Manning would reveal a neck injury that could conceivably end his career?

    Each season creates its own narrative. Consider: Two weeks ago, undefeated Detroit seemed destined to have a do-or-die ultimate eye-to-eye get-down with the Green Bay Packers. Now, with Detroit coming off back-to-back losses, that showdown of Ndamukong Suh vs. Aaron Rodgers, when both teams were supposed to be 10-0, has lost its luster.

    Of course, the NFL loves it as long as the new emerging teams bring with it heightened TV ratings. For the avid NFL fan, it does create many points of interest. But that’s the NFL. Each team has its own organic element. Teams begin anew and deal with weaknesses and build from there. What the experts said in July has no bearing. For that matter, what they say in September has no bearing.

    Each new season brings on new personnel, new strategies and thus more options. Three months ago, no one expected St. Louis to be winless. To be honest, no one could project the injuries that decimated projected division winners like St. Louis in the NFC West or Indianapolis in the AFC North.

    In turn, what we can take from the first six weeks of the NFL is that new leaders have emerged, and thus here are four reasons the San Francisco 49ers will last deep into NFC playoffs.

Defense Oriented

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    The Niners are defense first, offense second. That is, right now. There are those who can point to the low passing numbers on offense, the low overall offensive production numbers (both being well below 25 out of 32 teams), and say this is a limited team.

    Quite the contrary. This is team whose focus has to be of getting out of the way of its defense. The cliché of course is the defensive players, as they trot off the field, telling the offensive teammates to “hold them until we get back on the field.” In San Francisco, it’s not quite that extreme but you see the point.

    The offense has to do its share of scoring, albeit a touchdown and field goal here or there, but score when it has to. A 10-3 victory counts as much as a 45-10 blowout. But the Niner offense, riddled with injuries at wide receiver, doesn’t have that expansive nature. The defense, however, is anchored by a front seven as good as any in the NFL.

    The offense doesn’t have to rack up 450 yards a game. It just has to move the ball enough to get a score here, a field goal there. What it can’t do is give up the turnover that leads to an easy TD for the opposition. And a key factor in this equation is the 49er special teams.

    Their influence doesn’t make ESPN highlight shows, but the gradual advantage gained through field position changes courtesy of punter Andy Lee and the coverage schemes from coach Brad Seeley, add up, overall, in a better chance to score for the offense.

    With the 49er currently at 5-1, and in light of the fact that so many experts picked the Rams or the Cardinals to win the division, securing the division title is a major accomplishment, but this is a team geared on making more of its opportunities.

Health Improving

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    Braylon Edwards is expected back this week. And that helps, which is to say, the Niners are still evolving. All teams are. When talking with offensive coordinator Greg Roman or defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the question came up, which kind of team are you?

    On offense, are you run-run-big play off play action? On defense, are you a pressure team or a cover team? And the answer to all was, "Yes."

    And that’s what it takes to not only win but to go deep into the NFL. You have to be all, or at least capable of all, at any time. And in that vein, the expected addition of Braylon Edwards at receiver this week should help provide more options for quarterback Alex Smith.

    With Edwards, that means one more threat for the defenses to account for. From an opposition’s perspective, it might mean single coverage on Michael Crabtree, which results in a big gain that leads to a decisive score. It’s the sort of factor that doesn’t show up in box scores.

    Here’s an example of how one play can change an entire game:

    In the game in Detroit, the Lions had the ball near their own 40 with about five minutes left. They had a 19-15 lead, and they were in a place that offered the chance to be aggressive. Hence, Matthew Stafford went into play-action mode and looked downfield for a receiver.

    Now, if he completes a pass, or even if he doesn’t and the Lions end up punting, it is a situation highly favorable to the Lions. Even with the series ending in a punt, Detroit maintains a lead and has the clock on its side.

    Except Aldon Smith broke through and stripped Stafford of the ball. The Lions recovered, but facing 2nd-and-28, they went conservative. As they should. But that’s how Ted Ginn Jr. turned  a 39-yard punt into a one-yard loss thanks to his 40-yard return. The Niners had to cover 35 yards to take the lead.

    That’s what defense and special teams do. You won’t see it on the highlights, but it shows one way the 49ers make the most of their limited offense.

Opportunity Awaits

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    The Niners are coming off a big win in Detroit, and at 5-1 (this weekend) are in control of the NFC West. But think of their schedule. Off the bye week they host Cleveland, and then travel to D.C. to play the Redskins. After that the Giants and the Cardinals come to Candlestick. In light of the 49er success in the first third of the season, it’s is safe to say that none of those games figure to be favored by the opposition.

    If the Niners continue to improve more on offense and play to their [elevated] talent on defense, this is a team that could compile elite numbers for the NFC playoffs.

    With a win in Washington (which is not out of consideration in light of the Skins’ deplorable loss to Carolina), as well as home wins over Cleveland, the New York Giants and the Cardinals, the 49ers could be 9-1 going into the last third of the NFL season.

    It’s pure prognostication, which is something that coach Jim Harbaugh guards against on a daily basis, but it is within the realm of possibility that the 49ers could be in contention for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

    It may not be enough to overcome a limited offense, but it is a definite factor. And it just might be enough to get them too…., well, let’s not get too wishful.

Assessment Time

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    A scan of the NFL landscape reveals certain things. New Orleans is an offensive powerhouse, one certain to make the playoffs. But are they better than Green Bay, who might be the NFL's best team right now? Who do you choose, Brees or Rodgers as the NFL’s best QB?

    Those two seem certain to make the playoffs, but that leaves two other divisions. The 49ers appear to be a lock for the NFC West, leaving one. Right now, the Redskins, Giants, Cowboys and Eagles are all in the running for the NFC East. It looks like only one NFC East team will advance into the playoffs.

    And thus, in a rough picture sense, you have what is in front of the 49ers. With continued stellar defensive play (something that seems well within the realm of the possible for such a young, dynamic unit) and improved offensive output (it could happen with the addition of Braylon Edwards), the Niners could be in the running for having home-field advantage in the playoffs.

    And for all the stats of who gets to the Super Bowl and who doesn’t, there is one key fact not to be ignored in all this.

    Having the best record in the regular season gets you a first-round bye, and then the weakest seed from the first-round matchups. Without sounding too presumptuous, for the Niners that could mean Atlanta coming into town after a wild-card victory.

    Best record in the NFC means hosting a home game, and then having to win another game to get to the Super Bowl. In a season that has provided many unexpected developments, who is to say the idea of the Niners hosting the NFC Championship game in Candlestick is out of the question?