What a regular season it was for the San Francisco 49ers. A 13-3 finish earned them the #2 seed in the NFC, and a slightly shorter road to Indianapolis next month.
The first-round bye gives the team a chance to not only rest up and prepare, but a chance to study their possible future opponents during wild-card weekend.
The 49ers actually learned their divisional-round opponent just last night. The New Orleans Saints' 45-28 victory over the Detroit Lions will send Drew Brees and his reckless(but very successful) offense to Candlestick Park for a match-up of two teams that seem to be polar opposites.
Due to the NFL's re-seeding rules, the 49ers will play the highest seed remaining in the NFC bracket. The Packers draw the low seed that fights their way through wild-card weekend, which will now be the winner of the Giants-Falcons game in New Jersey.
So when the Saints come marching in, San Francisco will find themselves just 60 minutes away from their first NFC Championship game appearance since 1997. Did the extra week off provide the 49ers with sufficient rest and adequate study time to derail the freight train that's coming their way? Or are Drew Brees and the robot-like Saints just too red-hot to cool down?
After last night's win, New Orleans has now scored 45 points in their last three games, all at home. However on the road they have only managed 40+ points just once in eight attempts. The victim? The lowly Minnesota Vikings. It's ludicrous to say that the Saints won't be coming to town with optimal confidence in their offense. But they won't be playing inside this Saturday, and that should worry New Orleans.
When the Saints put up 42 in Minnesota, it was in a dome. In a three-game road stretch against the Jaguars, Panthers, and Buccaneers, they scored just 23,30, and 26 points in those games, respectively. They put up just 22 points in a December match-up in Tennessee.
None of those opponents made the playoffs, and none carried a defense ranked in the same tier as San Francisco's. The 49ers' Patrick Willis is one of the few linebackers in the NFL capable of defending tight ends by himself. This will be huge, considering the emergence of Jimmy Graham and how comfortable Drew Brees feels throwing his way.
I initially thought that Brees may lose some sleep this coming week, preparing for a defense more powerful than he has faced all year. But at that point, I remembered that Drew always takes his Ny-quil when he's tossing and turning, so no issues for him there. What may be an issue for the Saints as a team, is their defense. Typically overshadowed by victory and 400 yards passing by their quarterback, is a flawed defense that fails to force turnovers. San Francisco totes a turnover ratio of plus 28, and coughed up the pigskin just ten times all season. None of those have occurred in their last six games.
If the 49ers can play their brand of football, in their atmosphere, they should keep Brees off the field and out of the end zone enough to advance this Saturday.
NFC Championship Game
Get by one high-powered offense, and here comes another. Aside from the defending champs, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan lead the Giants and Falcons up and down the field very fluently. But to this point, that shouldn't threaten the 49ers much. If San Fran beats the Saints, they will have shut down two of the NFL's four 5,000 yard passers in the same season.
If the Giants or Falcons can knock off Green Bay, the 49ers will host the championship game in their house. Packers win, and it's off to Lambeau. Without question, the 49ers would prefer to stay home and not face the Packers. Unfortunately that's the most likely scenario, but I don't think it's as bad as it seems.
A match-up in Lambeau would provide frigid weather. The right conditions could force the Pack to shy away from the deep ball, and focus more on the run and short passes. Green Bay really has no rushing attack, and the 49ers have the best front seven in all of football. I'm not favoring San Francisco against the defending champs on the road, but they've taken their brand of football out east and had success all season. They did lose to the Ravens on a short week, but no NFC team outside of the 49ers has a defense similar to Baltimore's.
The 49ers have handled the Giants once this season, but it was close at the end, and the Giants are a dangerous team. New York can also play anywhere, and their pass rush has evolved well since the first visit. I think the most ideal opponent for this game would be the Atlanta Falcons. "Matty Ice" typically knows how to seal the deal at home, but he struggles mightily outside, and is yet to cut it in the postseason. They would have to get past the Giants and Packers on the road first, so consider this match-up a long shot even in the unpredictable playoffs.
Super Bowl XLVI
We've covered the scenarios in the NFC for the 49ers to make it to Indy, but what about the AFC? We now know that Baltimore will host Houston in the divisional round, and the winner of the Steelers-Broncos game will head to Gillette Stadium to play the Patriots.
Contrary to popular belief, I don't think the NFL is shifting, or has shifted, to a passer's league. I'm not ignoring that insane statistics put up this year and all the records to come with them, but what team has won a Super Bowl with no defense? Brady, Brees, and Rodgers all have their rings, but they had a great defense to get them the ball back each year they did it.
In 2010, the Patriots entered the playoffs just as hot they have this year. They'd crushed opponents on their way to a home game against the Jets and gave up 28, and lost. That defense has looked far more shaky this year, and I think it will fail them yet again. If they do make the Super Bowl, the 49ers will have already defeated the Saints and likely the Packers, and shouldn't fear New England any more than those two.
A more daunting Super Bowl task for San Francisco would be a re-match with either the Steelers or the Ravens. Two tough teams with loads of playoff experience could really trouble the 49ers. Houston could find itself there as well, and plays a similar game to these teams. I truly would prefer to face an air-it-out offense in the Super Bowl as opposed to one of these three teams, even if it is insid Lucas Oil Stadium.
Regardless of how this journey ends for the 49ers, it's been a great season. They've made it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and what happens from there is yet to be seen. Although it's a fading trend, I still believe defense wins championships. Will Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco's defense lead them to the promised land?