The 49ers have been somewhat of a mystery team to many people across the nation. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, and they ranked as one of the league’s worst since then.
This year was expected to be about the same, which is why most of their games were rarely on national TV. Even their Thursday night game in Baltimore was on the NFL Network, which isn’t an included channel on many cable networks.
Thus, many NFL fans around the country have never seen why the 49ers currently hold the second seed in the playoffs. What did they see?
An old stadium that can’t stay lit.
A defense that forced four turnovers. A defense that hasn't allowed a rushing TD in 14 games, which is a record.
Said Harbaugh afterward, "Also want to recognize our defense. NFL record, in the history of the NFL, not allowing a rushing touchdown for (the first) 14 games (of a season). I think that is huge. All credit to our guys on the defense for that and our coaches and all those men. Congratulations to [LB] Aldon Smith, too. Setting a (49ers) rookie record (for sacks in a season). There might be some other ones that I don’t know about. Biggest thing is just really proud of our team. Great win.”
But also a defense that got to play against a limited Ben Roethlisberger, whose sore ankle limited his mobility. It also affected his accuracy as he could not step into the throws.
The 49ers recorded four takeaways on the day (three INTs, one FR), giving the team a league-high 35 takeaways on the season. The 49ers plus-25 turnover differential also ranks first in the NFL.
They saw in the first two quarters a precise though limited offense that made two long marches down the field, with both ending in field goals.
They saw Aldon Smith (99), a rookie who just turned 22, get 2.5 sacks to give him 13 on the year. He's fifth in the league, not bad for a player selected in the first round but was packaged by GM Trent Baalke as someone whose age meant he might not develop into his full capability for another year or two.
And they saw Justin Smith (94) add to the harassment of Roethlisberger. They didn’t get to see Patrick Willis, arguably the team’s best player, and perhaps, the league’s best linebacker.
They didn’t see too much of the power or “Hammer” packages of added offensive linemen. They didn’t see any tackle eligible passes or fake field goals. They saw simple field position football: first-down oriented with minimal mistakes on offense to go along with special teams that made the Steelers look at long fields.
Add in a defense that racked up four turnovers and you could say the score should have been 28-3, which would qualify as a blowout.
Pittsburgh had to make more plays than the 49ers, who didn’t give the Steelers anything easy. It’s a formula that may make it difficult to find lots of highlights for SportsCenter, but it does add up to a way to win a lot of games in January.