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To me, NFL games are a collection of snapshots. Moments. Some good, some bad, but all worth watching. The 2013 San Francisco 49ers have created their share of snapshots this season...but the best set thus far came last week in Charlotte, North Carolina.
From the get-go, Carolina came out swinging. And jawing. And pushing. And shoving. And at the end of the day, it didn't mean a damn thing. For all of their bluster, the Panthers were thoroughly outclassed...and one play in particular showcased it. Early in the 2nd quarter, the Panthers had driven the ball to the 49er 1 yard line. On 4th and goal from the 1, the Panthers elected to go for it. At the snap, Tony Jerrod-Eddie got immediate penetration, and as Cam Newton tried to sneak in over right guard...he ran right into Ahmad Brooks. It was violent. It was sudden...and it completely changed the tenor of the contest.
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Though the Panthers would go on to score and lead (albeit briefly)...that stop made Carolina's jawing look like desperate yammering...made their shoving after the whistle look like frustration...and made their team look like a very talented, very undisciplined group that needs to gain more bearing if they plan on making it past the first round of the playoffs.
SAME VENUE...DIFFERENT TEAM
Week 2 seems like a lifetime ago. Almost a different season, really. Truth be told, the 49ers journey has taken multiple twists, turns and even a few detours since the evening of September 15, 2013...some worth mentioning, others not so much. One thing is for certain though. This 49er team is much different than the squad that disintegrated in the 4th Quarter of their last game at the Clink. How different? Read on:
*The 49er passing game has grown: When the 49ers travelled to Seattle in September, their top 3 wide receivers were Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore. Of the three, two are no longer on the roster. These days, the 49ers' top 3 Michael Crabtree (back from injury) Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton...and the difference in the 49er passing attack has been stunning. How stunning? Consider this: since the return of Michael Crabtree, the 49ers haven't lost a game...including their Week 14 showdown with the Seahawks at Candlestick.
*Colin Kaepernick is a different player: When Kap led the 49ers into the Clink in Week 2, he was a completely different player. I've gone into this rather extensively in previous weeks, but I will recap for the benefit of first time readers and those that have forgotten. At the outset of the season, Colin Kaepernick was running a different offense...so were the 49ers, in fact. Due to the severe limitations placed on the offense by injuries at the WR position, the 49ers had to adapt...and so did Kap. Formations changed, personnel groups changed, route progressions changed and the offensive game plan changed, too. The net result? A young QB, still learning the most complicated playbook in the NFL, was asked to ad-lib...and that led to some growing pains. Kaepernick was forced to become more conservative...more cerebral...more of a game manager. Because that is precisely what the 49ers needed him to be. Kap improved his craft and became a better player because of it. The numbers bear this out: over the last 3 games of the regular season, he led the NFL in total QBR (82.2) and was 4th in total QB rating (109.7). More telling, however, has been his performance in the clutch at Green Bay and Carolina. Against the Packers, he led a 5-minute clock killing drive to get the 49ers in position to secure the victory. Against the Panthers, he tossed the go ahead score just before halftime, and ran for another in the second half. Is he ready to exorcise the demons of his past two games at the Clink? I certainly think so.
*The 49er defense has evolved from very good to LIGHTS OUT: Over their past two playoff contests, the 49ers have managed a pair of incredibly impressive feats: they held Aaron Rodgers and the explosive Packer offense to 177 yards passing and held Cam Newton and the Panthers to 3 points on 3 trips into the Redzone. For the postseason, they are averaging 4.5 sacks per game (1st among all playoff teams). They are giving up an average of 303 yards per game (2nd among all playoff teams). Over their last two quarters of football, they have given up 71 yards and NO points. This defense is the best left in the playoffs, and their pure dominance to date shows it.
Given all the talk, analysis, premature Super Bowl tattoos, articles about Harbaugh's khakis and a host of other colorful angles...it feels like this game has been talked to death. But leaving all that foolishness aside, what really has to happen for the 49ers to win on Sunday night?
*Colin Kaepernick MUST NOT turn the ball over: One day, Kap will be good enough to throw two picks in a critical road game and find a way to engineer a comeback. This Sunday is not that day. In each of his last two trips to Seattle, Colin Kaepernick has played his worst football...particularly as it pertains to avoiding turnovers. Kap's only multi interception game this season came in Seattle, Week 2. His first pick came on a tipped ball in the endzone...and completely killed the 49ers momentum early on. Hanging onto the ball against a defense like Seattle's is easier said than done...but the 49ers must minimize the Seattle secondary's opportunities by playing to Kap's strengths...which means keeping them honest with the threat of the run, and forcing the Seahawk secondary to play 4 full quarters.
*The 49ers MUST convert 3rd downs on offense:The Seahawks are a team that thrives on momentum. Their game is to gain the advantage early...causing their opponents to press.The easiest way to take the wind out of their sails is to keep their defense on the field with long drives and wear them out. That is exactly what the 49ers managed to do in the teams' last meeting in San Francisco. When forced to defend late, the Seahawks didn't have the legs to stay with the 49ers and it cost them the game.
*The 49ers MUST remain committed to the run: The Seahawks strength is their secondary...a unit that features 3 All Pros. If they get up early, it forces opponents to throw into the teeth of that unit. For the 49ers to win this game, they must keep the score close enough that this group is forced to play the run instead of playing man-press, looking for turnover opportunities. If the 49ers are within striking distance in the 4th quarter, they'll be able to take the teeth out of Seattle's strongest defensive unit...which will dramatically increase the 49ers chances of advancing to the Super Bowl.
*Interesting stat: Over the last two quarters that each team has played, the 49ers have scored 10 points and held their opponent to 71 total yards. The Seahawks have scored 0 points, and surrendered over 200 total yards. A trend? Perhaps.
*Nervous? You should be. Seattle is a very good team. It will be interesting to see how they choose to defend a 49er receiving corps that features a healthy Michael Crabtree and a healthy Vernon Davis. My guess: they opt to man up, rolling Earl Thomas toward Crabtree, bracket Davis with Kam Chancellor over the top and hope that single coverage will be enough to at least contain Boldin.
*One key to the contest rarely mentioned in national coverage is the performance of the 49er offensive line...particularly their Tackles, Anthony Davis and Joe Staley. Their success will be critical to any positive traction that the 49ers hope to gain on offense. Expect a silent package to have been worked in to the 49er offense to make life a little easier for the big guys this weekend.
Because the best 4 teams (in my mind at least) have advanced to what might be the most entertaining NFL Championship weekend in the last 5 years, I'll do my best to keep the smarminess to a minimum:
Patriots at Broncos (-5):
Historically, Tom Brady has owned Peyton Manning. This might be the last time these two meet in the playoffs. This could be a game that someone makes a movie about some day...no matter who wins. That stated, I think this game will come down to individual playmakers...and while Tom Brady might be the best individual playmaker in the game...he just doesn't have enough playmakers around him to beat a very talented Denver team playing on their home field. BRONCOS.
49ers at Seahawks (-3.5):
The last two times the 49ers have travelled to the Clink, they've absolutely melted down. That last bit is critical...because in both contests, the 49ers made far too many mistakes to win. Over the course of their last 8 games, the 49ers have minimized mistakes. Over their last two (both road playoff victories) they've almost completely eliminated them. The same cannot be said for the Seattle Seahawks. I think that will be the key to this contest. The 49ers are playing their best football at the perfect time...and the Seahawks appear to be backsliding. 49ERS.