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It is difficult to determine when it happened, exactly. The point at which it became obvious (to AJ anyway) the 49ers were going to win last Sunday, to be precise. Looking back, it likely happened about eight minutes into the 2nd quarter. Colin Kaepernick dropped back to pass, and set his sights on Vernon Davis. The play call was perfect...but Tramon Williams left his man (Anquan Boldin, who was running a lazy clearing route) to undercut Davis and pick off the ball. It wasn't the pick that created assurance that the 49ers were going to win...but rather what happened afterward.
As Williams began to weave his way up the sideline, Kaepernick squared him up and dropped the hammer...then sprang to his feet, furious. He got in Williams' face...and stayed there, jawing. Suffice to say that few folks have ever seen that from a quarterback.
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That was it. Yup. That was the moment. It was easy to read on Kap's face. On Gore's face. On VD's face. They weren't distracted...they were focused. They weren't discouraged...they were determined. They weren't panicked...they were PISSED.
And that is what makes this 49er team different. They seem to take adversity personally. They approach failure with vehement disdain. And for 49er fans, that is a thing of beauty. Almost as beautiful as the 5-minute game ending drive that killed the clock, and any chance the Packers had to mount a comeback.
This game was more than business as usual. It was personal. It was punch-in-the-gut, slap-in-the-face, kick-in-the-cojones personal. And that is what made it great.
OFFENSIVE MVP: WILDCARD ROUND
AJ: I could go many different ways here. Kap was a killer in the clutch. Crabtree was a beast. Vernon found the end zone. The O-line played a great game given the circumstances.
But in my opinion, none of them was able to match what Frank Gore did. Through freezing mud, against a loaded box almost every time he touched the ball, Gore pounded. And pounded. And then pounded some more. When the Niners had to have it, he got it. In fact, on the game winning drive, Gore touched the ball 6 times, notching 2 first downs.
His stat line (21 carries for 66 yards, 1TD; 1 reception for 11 yards) is not flashy...but put those yards into context and an entirely different picture emerges. Without Gore, 49ers would have been left out in the cold (a horrible pun, I know) and that makes him my 49er MVP for the Wildcard round.
Diego: Colin Kaepernick was more than just killer in the clutch, he was outstanding all game long. You would think the Packers would eventually figure out how to stop him, but not last Sunday, as Kap accrued 325 total yards (227 passing, 98 rushing). I would be the first one to give Gore's props for his game, so I'm glad you got that out of the way (though I should add he was stout as a blocker, as usual). That being said, how can I argue that Kaepernick wasn't the offensive MVP?
Ok, so he wasn't PERFECT (who is?). He threw three incomplete passes from the Packers' four-yard line on the very first drive. He also accounted for nearly every yard that San Francisco gained on that drive, which started at the 49ers 27-yard line. The very next drive also stalled in the red zone, where Kaepernick twice failed to complete a pass. The 49ers could be better in the red zone, as they ranked in the middle of the pack this season, and Kaepernick certainly carrier a fair share of blame there.
Nonetheless, Kap was determined, leading San Francisco to respond to each Green Bay touchdown with one of their own. After the interception, for which Tramon Williams should receive a fair share of credit, Kap responded by breaking out a 42-yard run on the 49ers' very next drive, which after just five plays culminated with Gore's touchdown. The third quarter was a struggle for both teams, but when John Kuhn scored a one-yard touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter to put the Packers ahead 17-13, Kap once again made his presence felt, putting the 49ers back on top after just four plays, the last of which was a 28-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis that was a thing of beauty. Finally, when former league MVP Aaron Rodgers led the Packers on a 11-play drive that took 5:25 minutes off the clock and tied the game at 20 a piece, Kaepernick outdid him with a 14-play drive that took the final 5:06 minutes of the game, and as the last second ran off the clock, Phil Dawson's 33-yard kick was rolling down the net behind the north end zone. The 49ers drove 65 yards on that final drive, and Kap accounted for 50 of them.
Not to be forgotten, he was a playmaker in crunch time. Kaepernick converted on just four of the 10 third down plays that called for him to make a play, but he was 3/3 in the final two drives of the game. Kaepernick slayed the Packers.
DEFENSIVE MVP: WILDCARD ROUND
Diego: During the first quarter it looked as if the 49ers were going to turn in the greatest defensive game of all time, which is saying something given they were doing this against Mr. Rodgers. Aldon Smith reminded everyone who may have forgotten that he is an All-Pro caliber defender, and he helped set the tone from the get-go.
On the Packers' very first play Smith set the edge as Eddie Lacy intended to run to the his (left) side, forcing him to reroute to the right for a gain of just one yard. On the very next play, although he wasn't really involved in it, he pancaked David Bakhtiari. On Green Bay's next drive Lacy once again started by running to his left, where Smith stopped him for a one-yard gain. On the next play Smith manhandled Bakhtiari, nearly sacking Rodgers all by himself (Ray McDonald got to Rodgers as well to take half of the sack). On the next play he forced Bakhtiari into a false start. On Ahmad Brooks' sack on the next drive Smith met him at the quarterback (although the full sack was credited to Brooks, who got there just before Smith). This was all done just in the first quarter.
Smith was spelled by Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta from time to time in the second quarter, and missed the first Packers' drive of the third quarter with cramps, but promptly returned to sack Rodgers on Green Bay's next drive with what can only be described as assault on Bakhtiari. It's worth noting that the Packers' barely ran in his direction after a Smith once again rerouted Lacy in the second play of the second quarter. Finally, he was also a difference maker in crunch time, hurrying Rodgers in this last two pass plays, the last of which resulted in a just a two-yard scramble that kept Green Bay out of the end zone and forced them to kick a field goal.
Aldon Smith showed that he is playing near the peak of his game last week vs the Packers, and I look forward to watching him follow it up against the Panthers this week.
AJ: There is no denying that Aldon Smith played an AMAZING game last Sunday...but I'm going a different way for defensive MVP...not because of what showed up on the stat sheets...but because of what DIDN'T show up on the stat sheet. For the game, Aaron Rodgers posted 177 yards passing, with 1 TD. His longest pass completion? It went for 26 yards, to Randall Cobb. It would be his only completion of 20 or more yards for the game.
This brings me to my defensive MVP: rookie FS, Eric Reid. This season, the 49ers have done an outstanding job of limiting chunk plays through the air...a trend that continued last Sunday, due in large part to the absolutely stellar play of Reid on the back end.
In fact, the entire game turned on one play by the talented youngster. With 7:07 left in the fourth Quarter, Aaron Rodgers dropped back to pass, and was immediately swarmed by the 49er defense. He "miraculously" escaped (read: was the beneficiary of three egregious, uncalled holds by the Green Bay offensive line) and fired a strike to Randall Cobb...who looked like he might score. But just then, Reid showed up and ran Cobb down...and in so doing, saved the season. The Packers would eventually settle for a field goal to tie the score. We all know what happened next.
The pass rush was impressive, the run defense effective and the game plan spot on...but it would all have been for naught if not for Eric Reid. Does it get more "most valuable" than that? Not really.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE ON SUNDAY?
AJ: The last time these two teams met, Colin Kaepernick had what might have been the worst game of his professional career. He threw for 91 yards, was sacked 6 times, and threw and interception on his final drive, killing any chance the 49ers had to come back and win the game.
That won't be happening this weekend.
Why? That's easy. This 49er team is dramatically different from the one that limped into Candlestick in Week 10. This time around, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Vernon Davis will be playing...and that changes the complexion of this matchup considerably.
Michael Crabtree creates a very troubling quandary for the Panthers. When these two teams met earlier in the season, Carolina rolled their coverage toward Anquan Boldin for much of the game, which effectively took away the 49ers top receiving option. That defensive strategy won't work on Sunday. Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell do not match up one on one with Crabtree...which means that Carolina can choose to double him up or roll coverage to his side of the field. Either option means more space for Colin Kaepernick to throw the football...which increases the chances that the 49ers will have a good day through the air.
Aldon Smith will be the best pass rusher on the field for either team this Sunday, Kraken or no Kraken. Smith's ability to get upfield while setting the edge is going to be a factor for both Cam Newton and Deangelo Williams. If Smith is able to do what he did to the Packers last week, effectively shutting down the run to his side of the field, Carolina's offense will have a much tougher time moving the secondary with playaction. Essentially, that means 49er safeties Eric Reid and Donte Whitner will have to less ground to cover...and that will dramatically affect the Panthers' ability to move the ball through the air.
The presence of Vernon Davis is something that the 49ers missed BADLY over the last 3 quarters of the game in Week 10. Having Davis on the field will force the Panthers to dedicate a defender to him...and if that defender is a linebacker, then it means one less defender available to spy Colin Kaepernick. If that defender is a safety, then it is entirely likely that Michael Crabtree or Anquan Boldin is single covered...and that there is one less defender in the box to stop the run. Though Davis is a matchup nightmare for any individual defender, the real problem he poses (in this game, at least) is what must be done to account for him from play to play.
The aforementioned noted, I think that the 49ers at full strength create matchup issues that the Panthers just won't be able to reconcile...and those issues will be the difference in the game.
Diego: We will see a legendary battle in the trenches when the 49ers are on offense. Many teams try to build a strong defensive line through the draft but very few succeed the way the Panthers have been able to. The highlight names on Carolina's defensive front are defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, and rightfully so as they have combined for 26 sacks this season, each logging in double digits. However, their teammates on the inside of the line should not be looked past, even if they are both rookies. After all, both Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short made Pro Football Focus' All-Rookie team after the Panthers selected them with their first two picks (14th and 44th overall) in last April's draft.
Let's make something clear, Carolina's front four will present A LOT more problems for the 49ers offensive line than what the Packers threw at them last week. Lotulelei sets the tone in run defense and all four defensive linemen excel at pressuring the quarterback. Other than Kaepernick's gallops, the 49ers were unable to produce much on the ground last week after putting on their worst run outing of the season the previous week against the Cardinals. Expect Carolina to be much more composed in keeping Kaepernick in the pocket while presenting a challenge similar to Arizona's in the run game. On top of the struggles in the running game, San Francisco's offensive line can suffer in pass protection at times, especially Mike Iupati and Jonathan Goodwin, and they will be tested early and often in this game, something Green Bay was unable to do. Colin Kaepernick was sacked a season-high six times in the week 10 meeting between these two teams, and hit a total of seven times.
If the 49ers can win the battle up front, and the presence of Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree can definitely help in this regard, the chances are that San Francisco will make their second consecutive trip (and 15th overall) to the NFC Championship Game.
- Surprise, surprise...Roger Craig got hosed by the Hall of Fame...again. The continued exclusion of one of the best players of his generation is ridiculous. Craig deserves the nod. Eventually he'll get it. But the fact that it's taken this long is a joke.
- For all of the whining from the fan base about 49ers OC Greg Roman, you'd think the team has gotten worse during his tenure...instead of improving year over year. If you are among those that are unhappy with Roman, do yourself a favor and compare what he's done to the two OCs that preceded him. You're welcome.
- Some food for thought: Colin Kaepernick has more road playoff wins than any QB (2) in 49er history...Since the 2009 playoffs, the only player with more TD receptions than Vernon Davis is Calvin Johnson...The 49ers have appeared in the NFC Championship 14 times since the game's inception in 1970...if they advance to the NFC Championship this season, they will have more appearances (15) than any other NFC team.
- It pains me to say it but part of me understands why Roger Craig was not announced as one of the 15 finalists nominated for possible induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has an incredible resume, but as someone who has been analyzing the criteria for running backs to get into the Hall of Fame (because I keep evaluating what it will take for Gore to get in) I understand that Craig just did not put together enough outstanding seasons to make the cut. He is a Hall of Famer in my heart.
- I'm a little late with this, but I feel the season finale against the Cardinals provided the 49ers with the kind of test that they needed just before getting into the playoffs. I felt that the win against the Seahawks had a similar effect, but being presented with that challenge once again prior to the playoffs was definitely a welcomed challenge in my eyes.
- Gut feeling says Kendall Hunter will be an impact player in this game. Don't know why, that's just how I feel. The last time I had a gut feeling, I called the Rams' upset of the Saints in week 15.
Divisional Round Picks
Saints at Seahawks (-8)
Diego: Did I just say the RAMS beat the Saints last month? Look, last week's win in Philadelphia was nice, but Seattle's trashing of New Orleans in week 13 carries a lot more weight for me, and Percy Harvin is apparently back AND healthy. SEAHAWKS.
AJ: Miracles happen every day. If you think about it...anything is possible. For example, it is possible that Sofia Vergara could stroll into my office clad in a bikini made entirely of fruit roll ups and demand that I remove it with my teeth. That's pretty improbable though...about as improbable as the Saints winning in Seattle. SEAHAWKS.
Colts at Patriots (-7)
Diego: There's one thing I'm 100% sure of, and that is that you should take the over on this one. COLTS.
AJ: The Colts defense is pretty bad on the road. How bad? Bad enough that they made Alex Smith look like the ghost of Johnny Unitas last week. And as "meh" as the Patriots can be on defense, if they jump out to a two score lead early, this one could get ugly. PATRIOTS.
Chargers at Broncos (-9.5)
Diego: All due respect to the odds makers in Las Vegas, but I'm taking the hot wild card team to, at worst, keep it close. CHARGERS.
AJ: The more I look at the match ups in this game, the more I feel like Keenan Allen is going to give the Broncos fits. I think Peyton Manning will play a lights out football game...I just don't think the Denver defense will. CHARGERS.
49ers (-1) at Panthers
Diego: Jim Harbaugh's team and its seven-game winning streak are so hot that they are the only road team favored this weekend. I expect a close game throughout and don't suggest that you watch this game if you have a heart condition, but I do expect San Francisco to win. 49ERS.
AJ: Match ups, match ups, match ups. At full strength, the 49ers present too many for all but the most talented teams to handle. The Panthers were one point better than the 49ers with almost the entirety of their passing attack shelved by injuries. Now that the 49ers are a full strength, I think they will be too much for the Panthers. It may not be a blowout, but there will be no doubt about the better team by the time the clock hits 0:00. 49ERS.
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