4 Reasons Why Home-Field Advantage Means More for the San Francisco 49ers
Saturday’s game in Seattle will be crucial to the 49ers' chances for securing the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. It appears to be an advantage of enormous proportions in that it would keep the 49ers out of New Orleans.
It doesn’t take much to propose that the Saints are the best team in the NFL right now, and quarterback Drew Brees will break Dan Marino’s mark for total passing yards in one season. The Saints have a few blemishes on their record—aside from losing to Tampa Bay, they lost (inexplicably) to the Rams in St. Louis—but are considered unbeatable in the Superdome.
And that’s what a No. 2 seed does: It gets you a first-round bye in the playoffs and then a home game. You get a week’s rest while your opponent continues the long physical slog that is the NFL season, and then that team has to travel.
All teams benefit from playing at home. But it has to be said that, in the playoffs, home-field advantage does not automatically secure a victory. At this time of year, a team’s ability to perform at a high level of efficiency is more important than home cooking.
In the 49ers’ history, the 1992 home-field loss to Dallas in the NFC Championship game was proof that a better team can win on the road. Four years earlier, the Niners went to Chicago and beat the Bears in the cold, 28-3. Both times, the better team won.
We saw it again last year, as Green Bay played three playoff games on the road and won each rather handily.
In San Francisco’s case, there’s no Aaron Rodgers, no Jermichael Finley and the rest of that offensive powerhouse. But the Niners do have their advantages, which makes them the NFC team with the greatest need for home-field advantage.
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The first two drives by San Francisco last Monday night against Pittsburgh demonstrated their ability to move the ball down the field. Granted, both ended in field goals, but there was no doubt they had a line on how to move the ball.
In San Francisco’s case, it has to be pointed out that, many times, Jim Harbaugh or offensive coordinator Greg Roman give two plays for Smith. When he gets to the line of scrimmage, note that Smith calls out signals and then he’ll do one of two things: He’ll roll his arms like a basketball referee calling traveling. That’s “roll with it,” which means go with the first play. If he chops his arms in the safe movement, that’s “cut” and go with the second play.
But all of this depends on players being able to hear the snap counts so that the formation changes and man-in-motion shifts can happen at the right time. Against Arizona, two “fly sweeps” were missed because center Johnathan Goodwin didn’t snap the ball at the right time.
Furthermore, hearing the snap count is most important on pass protection. Getting off the ball quickly usually leads to good pass protection. And having allowed 39 sacks on the season, pass protection is an issue for the Niners and one that can account for their dismal performances in Baltimore and Arizona (combined sacks in those two games: 15).
Getting the ball off quickly helps avoid sacks, but some plays require time. Hearing the snap count helps, and in the playoffs, that means playing at home.
Attacking the QB
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Conversely, the play of Aldon Smith (99) and Justin Smith prove that just the slightest delay in getting off the ball—such as Pittsburgh did on Monday—leads to pressure on the pocket.
Smith and Smith are a strong tandem, and many experts think they rank as one of the league’s best at rushing the passer on the defensive right side. Give them that initial half-step is deadly, and though it led to three sacks last week, it also led to Smith hitting Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger seven times on top of the 2.5 sacks.
What it also means is that the pressure on passing downs can come from four people, leaving seven to drop in coverage. And that right there does much to explain the Niners’ 21 interceptions (second in the NFL) and 35 turnovers (first).
Play in Front
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The goal going into this crucial game against Seattle is to take the crowd out of the game. It’s the loudest outdoor stadium in the league, one that prides itself on its “12th man effect" on other teams (namely, they commit false start penalties because they can’t hear the snap counts).
On the other hand, when a team like San Francisco gets in the lead at home, they don’t have to worry about overcoming the deafening noise. Playing on the road and trailing late in the game is much more difficult. That’s why you see relatively few comebacks in the playoffs.
Last year, Green Bay went into Chicago in the NFC Championship game and took the crowd out of the game by hitting on big plays early and often. The Niners don’t have that capability; their métier is the long drive that eats a lot of clock. That consistency is hard to do on the road.
With a Caveat
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The worst situation a playoff team can get into is to trail late in the game and find itself having to pass. Against a team that has a good pass rush, the chances for success are reduced.
Of course, Green Bay proved that last year. In the divisional game at Atlanta last year, they trailed 7-0 and 14-7, yet still scored 21 unanswered second-quarter points to destroy the Falcons.
Of course, four Atlanta turnovers hurt, but the Falcons also gave up close to 450 yards and didn’t gain 200 themselves.
All the hype about how tough it is to play on the road in the playoffs appeared to be true in that game—for about 20 minutes. Then Aaron Rodgers took over, and the Green Bay defense took advantage.
That may be reassuring, as the 49ers head to a very loud game in Seattle that will be crucial to their postseason success. But it has to be said that they don’t have Aaron Rodgers, and that’s why they need every advantage they can get.