This week, AJ and Diego reflect on the season and share their thoughts on the moment they realized the switch to Colin Kaepernick was the right call, what impressed them the most about the 49ers victory against the Falcons, and the most important matchup this coming Sunday against the Ravens, plus their pick for Super Bowl MVP, Two-Minute Warning, and their picks for SB XLVII.
At what point in the season did you realize Jim Harbaugh's decision to name Colin Kaepernick the permanent starting QB was the right move.?
AJ: As anyone that reads this blog knows, I had my share of doubts about Colin Kaepernick when he was named the starter in Week 10. I had no doubt that he'd be a very special player given time...but I was not convinced that he'd be able to take the 49ers deep into the playoffs this season...until he won at Foxboro.
Prior to that game, Kaepernick had flashed explosive play potential, but struggled to consistently beat complex zone coverage. All of that changed in Week 15, and the change coincided with the expansion of the "diamond" or "Q" personnel grouping in the Pistol.
The shift was borne of necessity...but it proved absolutely brilliant. Setting Kaepernick up in the Pistol was a move to elevate his comfort level, but it had some beneficial side effects: his read progression sped up, opposing pass rushers were forced to focus on contain instead of getting upfield, and the threat of the read-option run out of the "Q" created HUGE mismatches in the passing game off of play-action.
After that game, Kaepernick's grasp of complex passing concepts seemed grow week over week...and results on the field showed it.
The frightening part (for the Ravens, anyway) is that Kaepernick has improved dramatically since he first took the reins, and he seems to play his best football under extreme pressure.
Diego: I was an advocate for Alex Smith getting his job back as soon as he was cleared from his concussion symptoms, but since he was cleared so soon before the week 12 game at the Saints I was ok with Colin Kaepernick getting the start that week ... and after that game, I realized he was the better option for this team as a signal caller.
Kaepernick did not dominate that game, he didn't have an eye-popping stat line, and wasn't even the main reason why San Francisco beat New Orleans 31-21, but the character he showed in the game as well as the plays he did make made me understand that the change he brought to the offense was a needed addition to the team. The second year pro out of Nevada threw his first career interception at a moment in which the momentum of the game seemed to be turning towards the Saints. The 49ers defense picked up Kaepernick by getting Drew Brees to throw a pass that was intercepted by Ahmad Brooks and returned 50 yards for a touchdown. Momentum was back on the 49ers side, crisis averted, but for Kaepernick the moment was not forgotten. On the 49ers next offensive possession, the new starting QB led the team 80 yards down the field for a touchdown, highlighted by a 45-yard pass to Delanie Walker and bookended by a 6-yard TD pass to Frank Gore. We didn't know it at the time, but this would turn out be a preview of how Kaepernick responds to his mistakes. More often than not this season he has followed a turnover of his own with a scoring drive, and his response to his first career interception was definitely something noticeable.
The actual play in this game that turned the tide for me in the Smith-Kaepernick debate was his fourth throw of the 4th quarter, on a 3rd&11 from the SF 35-yard line. I talked about it hours after the game:
Quote:...the kind of scenario I dreaded the most for the young QB in this game. On the previous play, he had been dropped for a 1-yard loss running a read-option similar to the one he ran for a touchdown in the 1st quarter. The Saints defense was in a position to get the ball back to their offense in a one-score game with plenty of time left, the crowd was roaring, the stage was set for Kaepernick's demise. Instead he got the ball on a shotgun formation, and (from a perfectly clean pocket, may I add) he threw a beauty of a pass to Delanie Walker 25 yards down the middle of the field against a Cover 2 look, above the linebackers and in front of the safeties, in a spot where Walker could lay out to make a play ...
Over Alex Smith's career, including his best seasons these last two years, we hadn't seen many plays like the one Kaepernick made on that play. I still had my doubts afterwards at times, especially during his struggles the following week at the Rams, but especially after Harbaugh announced he would remain the starter I was convinced after watching him against the Saints that Kaepernick being the permanent starting QB for the 49ers was the right way to go.
What impressed you the most about the 49ers' win against the Falcons?
AJ: When the 49ers fell behind 17-0 in the opening minutes of the NFC Championship Game, visions of Seattle began to dance through my head.
But then something changed...something that the 49ers had gotten away from in their most lopsided losses of their season. Coach G-Ro decided that it was time to "feed Frank." Gore got carries, the Niners gained momentum, and for the remainder of the game, they dominated the Falcons. It took some time to gain the lead on the scoreboard, but after the 49ers first drive of the 3rd quarter, the Falcons were on their heels...and it showed.
The most impressive aspect of this game is the fact that the 49ers stemmed the tide of a surging opponent, changed course and took control of a game that they started BADLY...and that has not been a hallmark of the 2012 49ers.
This football team has lost the handle on some winnable games (at Minnesota, New York at Candlestick, and at Seattle) this season. In each of the aforementioned losses, the Niners got away from what they do well and tried to "force" a win by deviating from their formula for success. Against the Falcons, however, they stayed the course and won the game...and that is impressive.
If there is anything to be learned from the NFC Championship, it is that this team has become aware of what it must do to win...and that no matter how dark things may get during the course of a game, they have the confidence to stick to their guns and execute....and that has been the hallmark of every great team in 49er history.
Diego: I tweeted it at the time, and it still remains the single most impressive aspect of San Francisco's win in the NFC Championship Game. Overcoming a 17-point deficit was undoubtedly the best part about the 49ers latest victory because they hadn't accomplished said feat all season.
All three times San Francisco faced a double digit deficit this season, they ended up with a loss (at the Vikings, vs the Giants, at the Seahawks). The inability to overcome a double digit deficit was one of the main arguments against Alex Smith even before he suffered a concussion. Smith had led plenty of comebacks last season and even in prior seasons, but from the very beginning of this season the 49ers were a favorite to reach the Super Bowl, and the lost hope that seemed to come any time this team trailed by two scores was something that worked against the now backup QB. On week 16, when Seattle jumped to a 21-point lead before San Francisco could realize what was happening, I thought one of the only positives of such scenario was the test that it presented for Kaepernick, but he and the offense were never really able to get going, the 49ers defense was unable to stop the Seahawks from continuing to score, and before you noticed the game was already out of hand.
So when Atlanta worked their way to a 17-0 lead, you had to be worried, I would venture to guess that about 95% of us were. But San Francisco didn't panic, and understanding that the Falcons were a weak run stopping team they committed to the ground attack and slowly but surely worked the way back into the game, and accomplished what they hadn't done all season. The 49ers were faced with what had to be one of their worst fears and they defeated it with the odds against them. The ability to conquer that feat makes them that much more dangerous coming into the biggest game of the season. Perfect timing.
What is the key matchup in Super Bowl XLVII?
AJ: When the 49ers last locked horns with the Ravens, Haloti Ngata and friends had a field day with the 49er Offensive Line.
The result? Almost constant pressure on Alex Smith, limited success in the running game, and a Thanksgiving Night loss, 16-6.
There is one reason why I don't believe that Ngata will have that kind of success on Sunday afternoon...and they are the subject of my key matchup: The 49er OL vs. the Ravens Front 7.
Last season, the 49ers OL was among the league's worst in pass protection (early on, at least). This season, that has changed...dramatically. A unit once regarded as talented but lackluster has evolved into a group almost universally acknowledged as the best in the league (as of this writing, they have been chosen as the winners of John Madden's "Most Valuable Protectors" award as the best offensive line in the NFL)...and their post season numbers bear it out. Thus far in the postseason, the 49ers have surrendered 2 sacks and 3 QB hits...tops among any playoff team.
Add to that that the 49ers front 5 has paved the way for an eye popping 472 yards rushing, 6.6 yards per carry and 7 TDs this post season, and the conclusion is undeniable...the 49ers O-line has grown up in a big way.
Considering that the Ravens defense is averaging 85.33 snaps per game in the playoffs as opposed to 63 snaps per game for the 49er offense, what you end up with can be summed up quite simply: this Sunday a dominant, well rested Offensive Line will take the field against a dominant, overworked Defensive Line.
In last season's Thanksgiving night matchup, the 49ers' O-line was dominated...but circumstances being what they are, the tables are likely to turn this Sunday. And that bodes very well for the Niners.
Diego: For the record, my key matchup is Haloti Ngata against Mike Iupati, but AJ already discussed the battle in the trenches and we already sort of agreed on the previous question, so I will move on to what I think will be the second most important matchup in this game: Ray Rice vs Patrick Willis & Navorro Bowman.
Joe Flacco is getting tons of press this week and he deserves it, he has really elevated his game during these playoffs, but let's not forget for a moment what the identity of the Ravens is, and that is running the offense through Rice, who is arguably one of the best running backs in today's game. The five games that kept San Francisco from going undefeated so far this season saw them give up 143 rushing yards/game with opponents rushing an average of 36.2 times/game. That is 48.8 yards/game more than the 49ers average over the season, which was good for fourth best in the league (Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Denver). Now that the Ravens are able to display a balanced offense with the threat of Flacco and the skill of receivers such Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, etc, Rice remains the Ravens' biggest wild card.
That's where Willis and Bowman come in. Undoubtedly the NFL's best Inside Linebacker duo, they will need to be at the top of their game to limit Rice's yards whether he is carrying the ball or catching it out of the backfield. Bowman in particular has had an amazing season stopping ball carriers , rarely missing a tackle. Rice, the best player in Baltimore's offense, leads all players in the postseason with 247 rushing yards, and also has 69 receiving yards on just 4 receptions. If the Ravens are successful in getting him going, San Francisco could be in for a long day, therefore the 49ers should hone in on limiting Rice and take their chances with putting the ball in Flacco's hands, regardless of him playing at a high level this postseason.
Time to lay it on the line: Who will be the MVP of Super Bowl 47?
AJ: For the 49ers to win this game, they'll need to "out physical" the Ravens in the trenches, especially on offense. And make no mistake...they are quite they are quite capable of doing so.
Over the course of the post season, the 49ers are averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Over the first 8 games of the regular season, they averaged 5.6 yards per carry...the 4th best average since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger! For the entire season, they averaged 5.1 yards per carry...a VERY impressive figure. This team's rushing attack can absolutely take over a game...and that is a distinct possibility this Sunday. If that happens, I fully expect Frank Gore to be the MVP of the Super Bowl.
Though the Ravens are in the midst of shifting from a Defense first team to one centered around Offense, their heart and soul is still Ray Lewis. If the 49ers plan on grabbing momentum early, they MUST demoralize the defense...especially it's emotional leader. In order to make that happen, I expect Coach Harbaugh to serve up a heavy dose of #21.
Expect to see Gore enjoy space courtesy of the Ravens' efforts to keep Kaepernick contained. The net result: Gore will be the driving force for the 49er offense on Sunday...and if that works out as well as it did in the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers should pull out a win.
Diego: while the headlines focus on the HarBowl, Ray Lewis, Colin Kaepernick, and most recently Chris Culliver, one of the best story lines in this Super Bowl has gotten average coverage ... the passing of the torch from Lewis to Patrick Willis as the best Middle Linebacker in the game.
Look for Willis to, on top of racking up tackles, get a key sack and/or takeaway that will make a difference in this game. And when the game ends and the confetti drops, look for the #52 in red and gold to be given the Super Bowl MVP trophy, officially leaving him as the best current MLB in the game.
Two Minute Drill
- Given the veritable cornucopia of completely idiotic drivel spewed over the course of this week, is anyone else in favor of killing Media Day once and for all?
- Hey Randy...you may not believe in numbers, but the rest of us do. That means you're still #2. You're great...but you aren't the greatest. Not even close.
- Chris Culliver needs to stop talking. Right now.
- Does anyone else think that Jesus has better things to do than root for Ray Lewis? Just checking.
- If the Ravens plan on rolling out their base defense against the "Q" formation, keep your eye on whichever TE is lined up in the backfield...he'll likely be covered by Paul Kruger or Bernard Pollard. That, my friends, is the definition of a mismatch.
- Alex Smith reportedly will ask for his release after the Super Bowl and prior to the beginning of free agency. Count me as someone who thinks the 49ers should be able to grant his request, although I think they should be able to initially meet at a middle point and try to work out a trade to a team Smith approves of.
- Surprise surprise, looks like Michael Crabtree didn't sexually assault anybody the weekend of the divisional playoffs after all. Well, besides the Packers.
- Vernon Davis LOVES the big stage, and the stage doesn't get any bigger than the Super Bowl. If I was a betting man, I would bet on him either getting a touchdown or at least 100 receiving yards.
Picking Super Bowl XLVII
AJ: The Ravens have clawed their way from likely first round elimination to Super Bowl representative for the AFC...and they've averaged 85 defensive snaps per game in the post season. That makes for a tired defense. Expect fatigue to be a factor. A factor that will allow the Niners to run wild, and turn a close first half into a 4th quarter beat down. 49ers 24-16.
Diego: San Francisco has come full circle: on top of having a dominant defense, they now boast a scary offense led by Kaepernick and the pistol offense he so perfectly runs. Most importantly, they possess the best offensive line in football across the board. I expect the Ravens to be able to score some points, but I see the 49ers scoring more, perhaps with the help of a defensive score. 49ers 30-20.
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