NFL Fact or Fiction: Patriots Will Face 49ers in Super Bowl XLVI
The elite status quickly escaped the five-time Super Bowl champions following the retirement of the concussion-laden Steve Young and Jerry Rice’s Bay area switch despite a few bright seasons with “serial-underdog” Jeff Garcia at the helm until Terrell Owens finally burst on the scene.
But is this the year that they finally make their long-awaited return to the promised land?
The answer to that question does not depend on whether they can defeat the Super Bowl XLVI favorite, Tom Brady-led New England Patriots but on whether they can overcome the reigning Super Bowl champion—and lone remaining undefeated team of 2011—Green Bay Packers.
In the case of the San Francisco 49ers, their strength of schedule comes in its absolute weakness.
The NFC West and AFC South are currently deadlocked in a two-horse race for the title of “worst division in football,” sharing an abysmal .334 winning percentage and two winless teams between them thus far in 2011.
Considering the current state of the division and the fact that the Seattle Seahawks clinched the NFC West title at just 7-9 last campaign, it would be safe to declare the “magic number” to be eight.
Eight wins will get the 49ers into the playoffs.
With seven games remaining within their own division, three more wins appears to be not only a certainty but a joke.
Assuming a continuation of their form up to this point, Jim Harbaugh’s men could very well go undefeated outside of a Monday night confrontation with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I say this only because the Steelers will have much more at stake within their hard-fought division in comparison to a 49ers team that will have already clinched a playoff berth by then.
The Green Bay Packers Offense
It is safe to say that Aaron Rodgers has been the best quarterback in the NFL this season—a title the former Cal player and Brett Favre understudy has held since entering the playoffs on the way to earning his first—of multiple—Super Bowl titles.
However, this does not change the fact that the Packers have faced underwhelming defensive teams thus far.
In fact, three of their opponents are in the bottom 10 in total defense.
This is not to make the audacious claim that Rodgers or the Packers offense is overrated in any way but to point out facts (or stats) to be considered.
The Green Bay Packers Defense
This is simply not the same Green Bay defense we saw last season.
This is about as interesting an observation as anyone may find, considering the Packers really only lost one starter on defense in DE Cullen Jenkins.
An important side note would be the loss of All-Pro free safety Nick Collins to a season-ending neck injury, but his absence has not been the reason for the so far horrendous pass defense.
The front seven lack bite.
Since Jenkins' departure (which may only be coincidence rather than cause), the Packers have been unable to deliver the same pressure in the backfield as they had last season.
Clay Matthews (three sacks) has perpetually been a fraction-of-a-second too late in getting to the quarterback this season, and three of the team’s top five tacklers happen to be defensive backs.
Safeties Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah—who did not start until Week 3—are second and fourth on the team in tackles, which is not an overwhelmingly positive statistic.
As it stands, the Packers rely on big-play turnovers to control games, but strength and uncertainty (you cannot guarantee an interception or fumble) do not often complement one another well within the same context.
The San Francisco 49ers Offense
As ridiculous as it may sound, the success of the 49ers both depends and does not depend on the play of quarterback Alex Smith.
Statistically speaking, Smith has been a revelation under Jim Harbaugh, ranking within the top 10 among all quarterbacks this season with a 95.2 passer rating, 63.3 completion percentage and eight touchdown passes compared to just three interceptions thus far.
Simply put, Smith’s job is not to lose, and in some cases—as was the situation in Detroit—to make the passes that count to win.
Frank Gore is the key.
Since recovering from a leg injury that noticeably slowed the back through the first two games of the season, Gore has rushed for 393 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 7.86 yards per carry.
The San Francisco 49ers Defense
Perhaps contradictory to glorious years gone by in the days of Joe Montana, Young and Rice, these 49ers are much better known for their defense than a high-scoring offense.
The defense is the core, strength and collective difference-maker for San Francisco.
Ranking among the top 10 in the statistical categories of yards allowed, sacks, interceptions and fumbles recovered, they have become a genuine force in a matter of months.
But most importantly, the 49ers have allowed just 16.2 points per game, second to only the Baltimore Ravens.
It is that statistic which has allowed the offense to play at their own tempo and thus avoid turnovers, as they do not often find themselves in situations (more than a touchdown down in the dire moments) where Alex Smith is called upon to force passes downfield in order to play “catch up."
Patriots, Niners Super Bowl?
The truth is more fact than fiction.
While considerably lacking in some areas on offense (they do not have a legitimate deep threat with solid catching ability), they have continued to tick forward under the direction of Jim Harbaugh and Frank Gore’s sheer force of will.
Green Bay has lost before; Aaron Rodgers has not always been perfect.
It may seem like an eternity since either has happened, but this San Francisco defense has as good a chance as any to stifle or at the very least slow down the Packers’ offense.
Assuming that were to happen—and the 49ers were able to dictate the pace through high percentage passes, a commitment to the run game and avoiding costly mistakes as they have all season long—there is no reason they could not achieve victory.
Favorites do not always win.
However unlikely a “hero” they may be, “giant killing” is by no means out of the question this season.
Indy bound?.. We shall see.