After a 23-10 win over the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round of the playoffs, the stage is now set for the San Francisco 49ers. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and co. will travel to the Pacific Northwest next Sunday to take on the Seattle Seahawks at 6:30 p.m. ET in the NFC Championship Game.
The Niners find themselves in familiar territory, as they'll be playing in their third straight NFC Championship Game. The Seahawks, meanwhile, will make their first NFC Championship Game appearance since the 2005 season.
Clearly, next Sunday’s game means more to both teams than their two previous meetings this season. That doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable lessons the 49ers and Seahawks can take away from each one of those games. The biggest factor for San Francisco will be its ability to get running back Frank Gore and the run game going early.
During the Niners' last two games at CenturyLink Field, Gore and the rushing attack has been a complete non-factor. In 2012, the ninth-year veteran garnered 28 yards on six carries, and in 2013, he amassed 16 yards on nine carries.
To quiet the “12th Man,” you have to either put points on the board or put together long, clock-draining drives. Even though few teams have been able to do it against Seattle this year, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
The 49ers had three drives in their Week 2 game at CenturyLink that spanned nine plays or more. Of those three drives, one resulted in a field goal, another ended with an interception and the last one was a turnover on downs.
Yes, the final score of that game was 29-3; however, there’s no question the Niners left plenty of empty plays on the field. The same goes for their Week 16 matchup in 2012, a 42-13 loss. San Francisco’s offense had three lengthy drives and only one of them turned into points.
An 11-play first-quarter drive resulted in a blocked field goal, an eight-play drive in the third quarter ended with a Colin Kaepernick interception and a 13-play drive in the fourth quarter concluded with an 18-yard touchdown catch from tight end Delanie Walker.
Not to take anything away from the Seahawks defense, but the 49ers offense didn't do themselves any favors. Whenever Kaepernick and his counterparts travel to the Emerald City, they lose their identity and become one-dimensional.
They can’t allow this to happen in their biggest game of the season. If they do, San Francisco’s season will be viewed as an utter disappointment.
In all fairness, Harbaugh has done an incredible job since he took over as the Niners head coach in 2011. Aside from appearing in three straight NFC Championship Games, he has assembled a 41-13-1 record (playoffs included), led his team to the Super Bowl (2012) and helped build one of the most talented rosters in the league.
Yet, there comes a point in time where the organization needs to realize it’s a Super Bowl win or bust. Harbaugh is the ultimate competitor and looks forward to the highest challenge in everything he does. Here’s what he told David White of the San Francisco Chronicle during his introductory news conference:
It's the perfect competitive challenge. I look forward to coaching against John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick and the many great coaches in the NFL. That kind of challenge, I willingly accept it and I look very much forward to it.
Additionally, it’s evident the loss to his brother John in Super Bowl XLVII didn’t sit well with him. According to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, Harbaugh didn’t talk to John for a few days after the Super Bowl. It’s also worth noting that (Jim) Harbaugh told Wilson that he was attacking the offseason "with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind."
The 50-year-old coach won’t win any popularity contests because of his intense, over-the-top nature, but that’s the least of his concerns. The only thing he cares about is winning and sharing the success with his players. This, in turn, is exactly why he’s a players coach. On game day, there isn’t a player on San Francisco’s roster who wouldn’t give Harbaugh everything he has.
Harbaugh’s legendary “who’s-got-it-better-than-us” motto will carry increased meaning if he leads the 49ers to their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. But until then, the only thing he will be remembered for is his ability to become the only coach in NFL history to make it to the NFC championship game three times in his first three seasons.
The accomplishment is noteworthy. Nevertheless, it can’t hold a candle to a Super Bowl victory.