7 Potential Playoff Matchups for the San Francisco 49ers
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff are guiding the 49ers to their first playoff berth since 2002. Harbaugh is developing Alex Smith into a solid NFL quarterback and has the team believing in themselves. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has directed the NFL's premier defense.
The 49ers are a lock to make the playoffs, so let's take an advance look at some of the teams they could be meeting in the postseason. We will focus on the teams in the NFC with a record above .500. Here's a detailed review of each potential matchup.
After starting the season on fire at 5-0, the Detroit Lions are currently at 7-3. The troubles the Lions have had recently began when the San Francisco 49ers came to Detroit and beat them 25-19.
The Lions have a big-play passing attack, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford. In 10 games, Stafford has thrown for 2,843 yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Receiver Calvin Johnson may be the most explosive receiver in the NFL. He currently has 59 receptions for 978 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is another favorite target of Stafford. He is second on the Lions in pass receptions with 50. Nate Burleson and Titus Young round out a quality receiving corps.
However, the Lions are hurting in the running game. Jahvid Best is the leading rusher with only 390 yards. He has battled injuries and has only played in six games this year.
Best is an explosive back that has the ability to go the distance anytime he touches the ball. Durability, however, remains a major question mark. I believe Best would be best utilized as a situational back and a third down pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
The lack of a consistent rushing attack is a huge problem for the Detroit offense. When Best is not in there, teams can pressure Stafford with minimal regard for the run.
The lack of a consistent rushing attack also means that the Lions have trouble controlling the clock and this puts added pressure on their defense.
After nine games, the Lions' defense was eighth in the league in yards allowed and 12th in points allowed at 20.4. Their one weakness is against the run, where they're 27th in the league.
This matchup favors the 49ers because they are a strong running team. Frank Gore already has 870 yards rushing, more than double the Lions' leading rusher.
With little regard for the running game, the 49ers can unleash Aldon Smith and Justin Smith on the pass rush. 49er defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will also be creative with his blitzes and try to create pressure on Stafford from all angles.
The 49ers are a better team than when they played the Lions in Week 5, whereas the Lions have been up and down. This matchup favors the 49ers.
Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 23 - Detroit Lions 17
The Dallas Cowboys have quietly emerged as a playoff contender. They started the season at 2-3, and since then they have won four of their last five games, including a tough overtime win this past Sunday against the Redskins.
Quarterback Tony Romo has completed 223 out of his 346 attempts. He has 2,780 yards and 19 touchdowns.
The Cowboys have three excellent receivers in Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten. Witten leads the team with 52 receptions for 670 yards and five touchdowns.
Dallas has found a gem in running back DeMarco Murray, who has 747 yards and a 5.98 yards per carry average. Murray's emergence has given the Cowboys a legitimate rushing threat.
After nine games, the Dallas defense is ninth in the league in yards allowed at 327.8 per game. They're also 10th in the league in points allowed with 20.2.
With 14 sacks in his first ten games for the Cowboys, DeMarcus Ware is one of the premier pass rushers in the league. Ware is capable of wreaking havoc on an opposing offense.
The Cowboys beat the 49ers in the second game of the season 27-24, as Tony Romo engineered a late rally for the go-ahead touchdown.
I believe this would be a very tough matchup for the 49era. The one edge I give the 49ers in this game is coaching. I think Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio will make the necessary adjustment to give the 49ers the win in a close contest.
Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 27 - Dallas Cowboys 24
The Atlanta Falcons are second in the NFC South with a record of 6-4. Quarterback Matt Ryan has been inconsistent this year, throwing 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Ryan's completion percentage of 60.8 is also below what is expected of him.
The Falcons mortgaged a lot in the 2011 draft when they traded up to acquire wide receiver Julio Jones. Jones missed this Sunday's game against the Titans and has only played in seven of the Falcons' 10 games thus far.
Jones is third on the team with 30 receptions and 498 yards. This is solid production for a rookie, but Jones will need to stay on the field to continue to make an impact.
Roddy White leads the Falcons with 54 receptions and 710 yards. Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez is still extremely productive with 50 receptions and 561 yards. Gonzalez leads all Atlanta receivers with seven touchdowns.
Running back Michael Turner is having an excellent season with 888 yards on 200 carries. Turner leads the team with eight touchdowns.
Heading into this weekend, the Falcons were tied for third in rushing defense, allowing only 90.3 yards per game on the ground. Their pass defense, however, ranked 23rd, allowing 253.8 yards per game.
The key for the Falcons is Matt Ryan. When he plays well, the Falcons have a chance to beat anyone.
I believe the San Francisco defense can contain Turner and should have the upper hand if these two teams meet. The 49ers would most likely have the home field advantage, which is another big advantage.
Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 23 - Atlanta 13
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints are only one full season removed from their Super Bowl title in 2010. They currently stand 7-3 and lead the NFC South.
Drew Brees is one of the top quarterbacks in the league and leads a well-oiled Saints offense. Brees has completed 299 of his 422 passes, an incredible percentage of 70.9. Brees has 3,326 yards passing and 23 touchdowns.
The Saints have a diversified passing attack with six capable targets: Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, Robert Meacham and Devery Henderson all have over 300 yards in receiving yardage. Graham leads the group with 62 receptions, 873 yards and six touchdowns.
The Saints also employ a diverse rushing attack as Darren Sproles leads the way with 348 yards. Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas also have 340 yards each. As a group, the trio has 1,028 yards on the ground.
This is the type of offense that can give any defense problems, even the 49ers.
Defensively, heading into this weekend, the Saints ranked 19th in the league in yards allowed, at 364.4 yards allowed per game. They're also 20th in the league in points allowed, giving up 22.8 yards per game.
This will be a very tough matchup for the 49ers. The Saints have the diversity on offense and the passing attack that can give the 49ers fits.
The Saints were upset by the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs last year. Do not expect this to happen again.
Prediction: New Orleans Saints 27 - San Francisco 49ers 20
New York Giants
A week ago, the New York Giants came into San Francisco with a 6-2 record and were expecting to show the upstart 49ers how football should be played. After a 27-20 defeat, the Giants became believers.
Manning has completed 220 of his 355 pass attempts, good for a 62.0 percentage. Manning has 2,852 yards, 18 touchdowns and has thrown only 9 interceptions.
Led by the tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, the Giants have a strong rushing attack. Each player has missed time due to injury, but when healthy, the pair provides a great balance of speed and power.
A key factor in the 49ers' victory over the Giants was that Bradshaw missed the game due to injury. He is a dynamic back and his absence made it hard for the Giants to establish any kind of rushing threat.
Manning has four receivers with over 400 yards receiving. Victor Cruz leads the group with 800 yards and is complemented by Hakeem Nicks, who has 685 yards. Mario Manningham is also very effective and has 404 yards. Tight end Jake Ballard is a solid receiver with 443 yards.
The Giants have one of the strongest pass rushes in the league. They have 32 sacks on the year, led by Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora.
Heading into this weekend, the Giants were the 18th ranked defense in the league, allowing 358.9 yards per game.
When the Giants played the 49ers one week ago, they flooded the box in an attempt to stall Frank Gore and the 49ers' rushing attack. This approach was successful, but they opened themselves up to be exploited through the air. Alex Smith had his best game of the year and led the 49ers to the win.
These two teams have tough, physical defenses. The difference could be Eli Manning and his receiving corps against the 49er secondary. I think they have an edge over the 49ers in this area and that could spell trouble for San Francisco.
The 49ers would hold the home field advantage and I believe have an edge in the creativity of their coaching staff. If the 49ers get the opening round bye, that should give Harbaugh and Fangio ample time to get the 49ers prepared for the Giants.
Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 26 - New York Giants 24
Cutler has completed a relatively low 58 percent of his passes. His yardage total of 2,319 is also below most of the other top quarterbacks. The key thing with Cutler, however, is that he has kept his interceptions down. He has seven interceptions, compared to 13 touchdowns.
Cutler sustained a broken thumb on his throwing hand. The initial prognosis is that he will be out for six to eight weeks. This will put a severe damper on the Bears' playoff aspirations.
Caleb Hanie, in his third NFL season, is the Bears' number two quarterback. He has seen minimal action, having thrown only 14 passes in his entire career. Hanie is unproven and even if the Bears make the playoffs, it's unlikely they will go very far.
The Bears are getting a superb season out of running back Matt Forte. He is one of the most underrated backs in the league and has 926 yards on 186 carries. Forte also leads the Bears in receiving, with 46 catches for 465 yards.
Defensively, after nine games, the Bears were 25th in the league in yards allowed, with 376.3 per game. However, they improve to 14th in scoring defense with 20.8 points per game.
This is a matchup that favors the 49ers. In addition to having the home field, I think they can contain Matt Forte. Even if Cutler is back in time for the playoffs, he will be rusty and the 49ers can force him into turnovers.
Prediction: San Francisco 27 - Chicago 13
Green Bay Packers
Rodgers has completed 238 out of 329 pass attempts, a 72.3 rate. Rodgers has thrown for 3,168 yards, 31 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
The Green Bay receivers have four receivers with over 300 yards: Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and James Jones. Jennings leads this group with 53 catches, 761 yards and seven touchdowns. Nelson is right with him at 40 receptions, 756 yards and nine touchdowns.
The ground game is the one area where the Packers may be below par. James Starks leads the way with 541 yards, but only one touchdown.
The key for any team to defeat Green Bay will be to harass Rodgers, hit him and create turnovers.
Defensively, after nine weeks, the Packers rank 13th in the league in points allowed at 20.7. The Packers do allow a lot of yards, at 384.8 per game, which is 28th in the league.
If the 49ers have to play the Packers in Green Bay, this will make an already tough task even tougher.
I do believe the 49ers have an excellent chance to play the Packers for the NFC Championship and a Super Bowl berth. Green Bay's experience and Aaron Rodgers will seize the day.
Prediction: Green Bay 27 - San Francisco 13
The San Francisco 49ers Are a Legitimate Super Bowl Contender
You've heard it before, "defense wins championships." If this is indeed true, the San Francisco 49ers have a legitimate chance to get to the Super Bowl.
In terms of points allowed, the 49ers have the leading defense in the NFL. The 49ers have allowed an average of only 14.5 points per game and have a league leading plus-17 turnover margin.
The 49ers' defense is particularly tough against the run and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the last 32 games. The 49ers also have not allowed a rushing touchdown this year.
Led by Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Justin Smith, the 49ers' defense is physical, opportunistic and very difficult to score on. These three are all having Pro Bowl-caliber seasons.
Alex Smith has emerged into a solid NFL quarterback that can do more than just "manage the game." Head coach Jim Harbaugh has implemented a system that fits Smith perfectly and has instilled a sense of confidence in his quarterback.
For the season, Smith has thrown 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions. That ball security has been extremely important in the 49ers' success this season.
Frank Gore leads the 49ers' ground attack and is having an excellent year. Gore has 870 yards in 189 carries, a 4.6 yards-per-carry average.
The 49ers' wide receivers have not been all that impressive this year. Josh Morgan is out for the season due to injury and Braylon Edwards had knee surgery early this year and is a shadow of his former self.
Michael Crabtree started the season slowly, but has been coming on of late. He had his best game of the year this past Sunday against the Cardinals, with 7 catches for 120 yards.
The 49ers have two excellent tight ends in Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Davis is an excellent blocker and both are fine receivers. They create matchup problems for any defense, as they're both too big for most defensive backs, but too fast for a linebacker.
Davis and Walker have combined for 58 receptions, 644 yards and eight touchdowns. Harbaugh has done an excellent job creating ways to get both tight ends involved and devising ways for them both to be productive.
The 49ers also have excellent special teams. Kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee are two of the best in the league. Return man Ted Ginn Jr. has also provided some exciting moments.
The coverage teams have been excellent and the overall play of the 49ers' special teams has given them field position advantages in almost every game.
The coaching staff led by Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has done a tremendous job. The 49ers are always well prepared, don't beat themselves and believe in what the coaches are telling them.
When a team has that positive belief, great things can happen. The 49ers definitely have that belief.