As the 49ers prepare for their final regular season game this Sunday in Arizona, a multitude of scenarios hang on the outcome of several games across the NFC. Most factors in where San Francisco ends up in the playoff picture depends on other teams, but they know at least one thing; they have a spot in the postseason, and that's all you can ask for come January.
Rather than speculate what the 49ers have to do to beat whoever they may face in the playoffs, because there is literally no team locked into a specific seed yet, it's more beneficial to look at what San Francisco has to do for themselves. They've proven that they can match talent with any team in the league, so it will most certainly come down to executing the keys to victory. At some point in the playoff run, the Niners can potentially face Seattle, Carolina, New Orleans, Arizona, Philadelphia, Dallas, Chicago, or Green Bay (although 3 of the final 6 listed will be gone after Sunday). Here are a few crucial points that will apply no matter what scenario the Niners find themselves in:
Show up before halftime: Sure San Francisco has put together some strong second-halfs after sluggish starts this year, but that trend needs to be bucked in the playoffs. They've been able to get away with slow starts against weaker teams, in games against St. Louis (twice), Washington, and Atlanta, where they had 14 points or fewer at halftime. Even games against playoff teams in Carolina and New Orleans could have been victories had the offense put up more points when they had their chances early in the game (subsequently they lost those games by a combined 4 points). San Francisco will probably not have the luxury of hanging around deep into games if they struggle in the first-half, especially if they fall behind early. All it takes is one bad half – even one bad quarter – to bury any chance at a Super Bowl. The Niners cannot afford to dig themselves in a hole early on or they are looking at a short playoff season.
Make an impact play early: This is really just building off of the previous point. The 49ers seem to trudge along until they come up with a big play of some sort that wakes the whole team up. Many of their slow starts have been due to the lack of a momentum grabbing play in the first 15 minutes or so. Just from watching the game's first handful of possessions, you can usually tell what kind of game the 49ers will be getting into. In their 4 losses this season, only once have they scored double-digit points (a 23-20 loss to New Orleans), and in those games they looked completely flat and out of sorts. This has mostly been a byproduct of starting slowly and never really getting anything going all game. Whether it's a long completion, a big hit, or simply a great play that changes field position in their favor, San Francisco has to do something to spark emotion and avoid a “boring” start, for lack of a better term. They can't wait until a halftime speech to get energized or it may be too late.
Don't force Kaepernick to win the game: No doubt, Kaep has proven that he belongs in the ranks of starting quarterbacks thus far in his short career, but that doesn't mean he's a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. San Francisco has been most effective when Kaepernick does just enough to keep the defense on their toes through the air, subsequently opening up the run game. Teams want to take away Frank Gore and the 49ers' rushing attack for that very reason; force Kaepernick to pass more than he should. That doesn't mean Kaepernick can't win a game with his arm, but San Francisco will have a much better chance to win if he's throwing 20-25 passes rather than 30 or more, mainly because it means the running game is working and they aren't trailing by multiple scores.
Get Vernon Davis involved: It's ironic to think that Davis is posting one of his best statistical seasons of his career, yet it often feels like he's being underutilized. That's because it's been all-or-nothing for him. He's posted some monster stat lines, with some clunkers mixed in. While San Francisco has been able to win games without a big day from Davis, getting him involved isn't going to hurt the offense. Davis has a dynamic size/speed combo, offering a speed advantage against linebackers and a size advantage over defensive backs. If Davis has an effective game, the offense becomes very difficult to scheme against.
Win the special teams matchup: The 49ers have the personnel to dominate this facet of the game. This is the best special teams unit the team has had among the last 3 playoff teams; The return game directly cost them in the 2012 NFC Championship, and they made a 2013 Super Bowl run in spite of David Akers' inconsistent leg. Andy Lee and the punt coverage is solid and Phil Dawson has become automatic recently. Those aspects of special teams have been crucial for San Francisco this season, and you expect that to continue, but the one thing keeping them short of special teams brilliance is the return game. What makes a team like Seattle so dominant is how their kick return and coverage are essentially an extension of the offense/defense; that's what San Francisco needs to find. It's not as ineffective as 2 years ago but it can certainly be better, and unlike previous seasons they have the talent to make it better. If LaMichael James can break off a solid punt or kickoff return that shortens the field for the offense, it may just be the difference in the game.
Obviously you have to execute the universal keys like winning the turnover battle, avoiding penalties, staying healthy, etc. to make a successful playoff run, but every team has to do that. Making sure San Francisco plays to their strengths will only bolster the odds in their favor, no matter who the opponent may be.Back to the San Francisco 49ers Newsfeed