Why the 49ers Are Missing the Playoffs

hi-res-015d79ac08d4b0ac08f6e329ffd4dfbb_crop_north 2Ben Margot/AP

The 49ers ended a three-season playoff streak on Sunday, falling to the Seattle Seahawks for the second time this year. They sit at 7-7, and have very little to play for other than self-respect. The ever-eager local media has pounced on the 49ers and the fans have followed suit, calling for some kind of retribution against a team that has fallen far short of preseason expectations.

Watching the anger and the subsequent blamefest unfold has been equal parts fascinating and depressing. As with any subject debated in the public forum, most fans’ conclusions were hopelessly reductive, excoriating Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman or the bad karma brought on by the much-maligned move to Santa Clara. As with any subject worth discussing, the ‘reason’ that 49ers fans are looking for is far more complicated than any single player or coach; blame should be spread in varying layers across all parts of the 49ers franchise.

However, the most under-discussed factor is, in my opinion, the most obvious reason the 49ers failed to return to the playoffs, or even come close. Last season, I wrote a short piece summing up what I thought was holding the 2013 49ers from dominating: injuries. By the 13th week of the 2013 season, the 49ers had ruled individual players out of games a collective 68 times, an average of 5.6 per game, hampering their ability to produce on offense. This year is even more dramatic.

I put together an edited 2014 roster, eliminating injured players that were never meant to play this season (Brandon Thomas, Marcus Lattimore) and other players buried in the depth chart (Kaleb Ramsey, Keith Reaser). I also omitted Aldon Smith from the list, given the circumstances of his absence. Of this pared-down roster of 43 ‘impact players’, the 49ers have missed a collective total of 135 games, an average of 9.6 players per game. The offense had 58 absences, while the defense struggled with 77. Of those 135 games, Pro Bowlers missed 27. Only 18 players on my roster have gone the whole season without missing a game. Some of those 18, like Chris Borland, Carlos Hyde and possibly Frank Gore, could miss Sunday’s game against the Chargers.

There isn’t any explanation for this, there isn’t any blame to go around. The very simple reality is that this team was missing many, many pieces. They lost team stalwarts like Patrick Willis, and quality backups like Michael Wilhoite and Derek Carrier. They lost players from every corner of the roster, and still managed to stay in the playoff hunt through 13 games. The fact that a team this battered still has a shot at a winning season is, quite frankly, remarkable, and stands in my mind as the best argument for giving Harbaugh another chance in San Francisco.

People spent a lot the 2014 season (and every other season, if we’re being honest) deriding Roman for his predictable and mostly ineffective game plans, but it is crucial that we examine his choices, along with everything else, with these injuries mind. It is easy for me to say that he isn’t dialing up enough run plays, but in so doing I am willfully ignoring the tremendous turnover on the offensive line and at the tight end position. Vance McDonald has failed to impress as a passer but has become one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. He missed 7 games. Losing any player, even a role-player like McDonald, limits what the coach can do.

There are also the lingering injuries, the ones that the 49ers were forced to play through. It’s no secret that Vernon Davis has been a major disappointment this season, but very little consideration is given to how injuries to his ankle and back have limited him. It is so easy to blame his ego, his work ethic or his preseason holdout, but the most obvious reason has been present almost all season. His lack of speed and execution might be the number one reason the 49ers’ passing game struggled so mightily, and his injuries are the only tangible reason I see for his rapid decline.

The poor health of the team is not an excuse as much as a deflating reality. The 49ers could have been coached better. Kaepernick could have worked on his patience and accuracy. Special teams could have un-trainwrecked itself. Roman STILL could have called more run plays. But none of that is really as compelling to me as the numbers listed above. To ask why the 49ers are missing the playoffs and fail to consider the effect injuries have had is simply foolish.

49ers vs. Washington: What I’ll Be Watching For

imrsRicky Carioti/The Washington Post

The 49ers take on Washington tomorrow, hoping to extend their win streak to three and show a little something at home. They are facing a beleaguered, banged-up team that has had a lot of turnover at the quarterback position. It’s an excellent chance to have a statement win, but the 49ers have struggled to score on just about everybody this season. Here is what I will be watching for:

Offensive Line

Washington is far from a complete team, but they do have some quality pieces. Their pass rush has been solid for a lot of the season, and was a big reason they were able to steal a win from the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. The 49ers’ o-line has been improving, due in large part to the emergence of Marcus Martin as an anchor at center, but they still aren’t close to their 2012 dominance. If they are able to keep Washington’s pass-rushers at bay, Colin Kaepernick can take advantage of their horrible secondary.

Pass Rush

The 49ers’ pass rush has helped them stay afloat in the wildcard race, and it needs to take it to Washington’s o-line. Making Robert Griffin III uncomfortable will keep Washington from putting together any kind of momentum. I also just want to see Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch go to work; it has been insanely fun to watch Lynch mature as a player, and having Smith back only makes him more dangerous.

Dominance

Last year, the 49ers went to Washington and dominated in every aspect of the game. They held Washington to just 190 total yards, sacked RGIII six times and looked, for all intents and purposes, like a playoff team. The 49ers have failed to truly dominate in a single game this season, and it’s starting to worry me. Kaep will be in a good position to bounce back from a poor game against the Giants, while Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde should get plenty of chances to make plays against the NFL’s 29th ranked rush defense.

49ers at Giants: Glorious

chris-borland-nfl-san-francisco-49ers-new-york-giants-850x560Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers put together one of the most glorious and frustrating games of the season, defeating the New York Giants 16-10 on the road. The 49ers’ travels are basically over; other than a short trip to San Diego and another to Seattle, every game from here on out will be at home or across the Bay in Oakland. The 49ers are 6-4, tied with Seattle in second place and still in the hunt for a wildcard spot. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Defense

Every week it gets harder to figure this team out. The defense has been dealt a horrible hand, losing all-pros, leaders, role players and everything in between. But no matter what happens, they keep balling. The 49ers are ranked 3rd in the league in weighted defensive efficiency, ahead of Seattle and Arizona. They are ranked 1st in the NFL against the pass, which I had to recheck three or four times because it makes no sense. Last week I attributed this ridiculous success to Vic Fangio and Trent Baalke, but I think this goes deeper than that. The 49ers defense has proven capable of weathering nearly anything, and that starts with the players. Despite a massive loss in talent, every single healthy defensive player has risen to the challenge. They are the primary reason the 49ers sit at 6-4.

Chris Borland

When the 49ers drafted Borland, I was skeptical. I don’t trust players who get by on instinct to last in the NFL. I’m glad I was wrong. His lack of physical tools has not stopped him from becoming the hero of the 2014 season. I’m still not 100% sure he can keep producing at such a high level, but here’s to hoping. For now, let’s just enjoy the one-man wrecking crew that is Chris Borland.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick

The offense struggled to get anything done, picking up just 333 total yards against one of the worst defenses in the league. Kaep was a big part of this, although he is not entirely to blame. He overthrew receivers numerous times and was ineffectual in the red zone. The Giants’ defense did a decent job covering the 49ers down the field, but Kaep had far too many missed opportunities.

Offense

It was a truly pathetic showing by the offense, which was only able to score 3 points off of five interceptions. The 49ers dominated in the trenches until they moved inside the Giants’ 20 yard line. This game should have been a blowout. Unlike the defense, the offense has no excuses. They are mostly healthy and should be averaging more than 21 points per game. The 49ers might be able to squeeze enough out of this offense to make the playoffs, but they won’t be able to go much farther.

The Other Thing

Aldon Smith

It wasn’t an incredible day for Aldon Smith, but his presence was certainly welcome. The pass rush was the best it has been all season. With Smith commanding the attention of multiple offensive linemen, the rest of the d-line was given plenty of opportunities to disrupt plays and get to the quarterback. It’s scary to think just how good this pass rush could be going forward.

Bears at 49ers: The Horror

Chicago Bears v San Francisco 49ersJeff Gross

The 49ers dropped a horrible, ugly, unwatchable game on Sunday, blowing a 17-point lead against a demonstrably inferior team. As much anger and frustration has been heaped on this game, it is important to keep in mind how strange it was. The reversal of fortunes in the fourth quarter was among the most dramatic I have ever seen. It is also important to remember that this is week two, and the 49ers are missing some crucial pieces. Here is what I saw:

The Good Thing

Run Defense

The run defense was stout on Sunday, holding Matt Forte to just 21 yards on 12 attempts, a pathetic 1.75 YPC. This was heartening to see; it was, for the most part, a good day for the defense, and it was great to see Ian Williams show a little something in the trenches.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick

People are calling Kaep’s performance among the worst of his career. Although I usually avoid those kinds of blanket statements, I have to agree, at least to some extent. Kaep was playing with an ugly mix of apprehension and excitement, and he looked extremely jumpy in the pocket. As things started to fall apart, he got worse, and continued to dig the 49ers into a deeper hole. The reality of playing the first regular season game in a new stadium may have gotten to him (more on that later) but we’ve seen this before, most notably against the Seahawks. The ability to calm down and overcome mistakes is something Kaep has shown in the past, but I can understand the concern that his contract and the revitalized receiving depth have put more pressure on him.

Run Game

Frank Gore has run the ball 29 times in the last two weeks, the lowest total for weeks one and two of any season since 2005, his rookie year. As I established in the offseason, the 49ers tend to perform better when they give Gore lots of chances. Greg Roman clearly wants to air things out a bit more, but he needs to use the run to open things up if he wants to put the receiving corps to use. Gore made the most of his carries on Sunday, but the 49ers never gave him the chance to really feast on a weak Bears defensive line. Of all the bad things we saw on Sunday, this is what worried me most. We saw the same thing last season, when the 49ers first three games boasted a pass-heavy attack and went 1-2. I had hoped Roman had learned his lesson, but clearly he has not.

Pass Rush

The 49ers’ pass rush is nonexistent, with only Justin Smith and rookie Aaron Lynch looking remotely productive. Touted veteran Ahmad Brooks and second year linebacker Corey Lemonier have been nonexistent thus far. Whether this is simply due to the absence of Aldon Smith isn’t clear, but what is clear is that the 49ers will need a stronger pass rush if they want to force turnovers and dominate on defense. I have faith in Vic Fangio to get things sorted out, but until then this remains a major concern.

The Other Things

Ball Distribution

For the second straight week, Kaep managed to give every receiver a chance to move the ball. He still isn’t trusting newcomer Stevie Johnson enough, but compared to the distribution last season (meaning: 90% of his throws going to Anquan Boldin) it is nice to see him spread things out. I’m a little concerned about his overreliance on Michael Crabtree. Their chemistry has brought good things in the past, but it is a tendency that can be exploited.

Random Stats

There have been a lot of random macrostats floating around since before the game started. Home teams are 20-29 in stadium openers. 49ers are 1-3 in week two of the Jim Harbaugh era. The 49ers lost stadium openers at Kezar and Candlestick. These are fairly meaningless, but they do speak to certain things. The stadium opener number does point to the gravity of the moment; it could help to explain the 49ers’ apparent nervousness on Sunday.

Penalties

There were 26 penalties thrown on Sunday, which is more than I can ever remember seeing. Some were fair, some were ticky tack and some were ridiculous. However, none of them take away from the fact that the 49ers turned the ball over 4 times. I am only mentioning it here because the volume of laundry on the field DOES have an impact on the outcome of the game. However, it does not excuse the 49ers’ utter failure to put this game away

49ers at Cowboys: Opening the Season in Style

628x471Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 49ers move to 1-0 after defeating a decidedly inferior team on Sunday afternoon. Just as I wrote in my pregame post, a hefty percentage of this game is semi-irrelevant; the 49ers we watched probably aren’t the 49ers we will be watching for the bulk of the season. We can be thankful for the macro results of the game, but there was too much downright weird stuff for us to look at this as anything but a typically aberrant season opener. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Turnovers

It was great to see the 49ers out there ballhawking. Whatever glaring weaknesses the defense had, they more than made up for them by taking advantage of each and every mistake the Cowboys’ offense made. Tony Romo threw three picks, but it was nearly five, and the 49ers started the game on the highest possible note with Chris Culliver recovering a fumble for a touchdown on the second play of the game. As I’ve written before, turnovers are erratic and cannot be counted on, but the sheer volume of turnovers is at least partially the result of a sound defensive scheme and the 49ers’ talent.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was more crisp and composed than I ever remember him looking. He was facing down one of the league’s worst defenses, but was impressive nonetheless, posting a career-best 125.5 QBR and throwing some incredible passes. It was a small sample size, as the game was basically over at the half, but I saw a lot of good and very little bad from Kaep. My favorite thing was the ball distribution: Anquan Boldin was Kaep’s favorite target, but he managed to give everyone some touches, including newcomer Stevie Johnson. This game was not enough to dispel the lingering doubts about Kaep’s ability to go through progressions, but it was a big step forward.

Run Game

Amazingly, the 49ers did not run the ball once until the 2nd quarter . Again, this was more due to the turnovers than anything, but even without actually looking it up I feel confident saying that this was the first time Frank Gore did not get a touch in the first quarter in the Jim Harbaugh era. That weirdness aside, the run game looked great, with Gore showcasing his prodigious vision (and surpassing the 10,000 yard mark) and Carlos Hyde showing some incredible burst off the line. What was particularly striking was how well balanced they were; Greg Roman struggled to fully incorporate LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter in recent years, but I love that he was willing to give Hyde plenty of chances.

The Bad Things

Defensive Line

The d-line was inconsistent on Sunday, never really pressuring Tony Romo and struggling to stop the run through the first half. It seemed like the 49ers were more committed to preventing big plays through the air than short yards on the ground, but Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith’s absences loomed large. As I have said repeatedly before, this was the season opener, and I know that Jim Tomsula and Vic Fangio are going to be working overtime to get the d-line back in working order this week. The 49ers are facing one of the league’s most prolific rushers next week in Matt Forte, and they will need to generate more pressure if they want to beat the Bears.

Penalties

Stupid officiating aside, the 49ers looked out of synch, giving up 80 total yards on 11 penalties. We saw the same thing week one last year with the 49ers losing 85 yards on 11 penalties, and generally lacking discipline. Hopefully this goes away quickly like it did in 2013.

The Other Things

Offensive Line

The O-line was less than impressive on Sunday, a fact that is easily ignored given how well Kaep performed under pressure. They are missing two starters in Alex Boone and Anthony Davis, so some struggles can be expected. Jonathan Martin and Joe Looney actually did quite well; it was veteran Mike Iuapati that failed to impress. Boone and Davis should be back soon, which, apart from newbie Daniel Kilgore at center, would round out the same group the 49ers had in 2012 and 2013.

Secondary

The secondary was a bit of everything, providing tight coverage but also showing some of rawness. Rookies Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson had great starts, while Tramaine Brock and Culliver were solid, if not impressive. Brock, Culliver and Ward were all injured, but none of the injuries proved serious other than Culliver’s concussion. The secondary was also not thoroughly tested, but they will be tried a bit more thoroughly next week by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

2014 Expectations and Ray McDonald

Aaron Lynch, Cornellius CarradineAP/Patrick Semansky

The 49ers begin another long road tomorrow, taking on the Dallas Cowboys with a battered defense and a potentially resurgent offense. The timeline of this season is fascinating; we will know exactly how this year will go within the first eight games. The defense is missing two of its most talented players in Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman, who will be back mid-late season. It will be on the offense to keep the 49ers above .500 for the first leg of the season.

Every season is ‘major’, in some way, but 2014 feels a bit more so. Colin Kaepernick signed a massive contract in the offseason, and it will be on him to prove that he was worth the money. The offense looks a lot better than it did in the 49ers’ first game last year, when the wide receiver depth chart consisted of Anquan Boldin and almost nothing else. Kaepernick has weapons; he has a reliable run game and a good offensive line. The only thing left is for him to produce.

If the offseason wasn’t such a mess for the 49ers, I would look at this year more hopefully. As it stands, I’m looking at this as a pseudo-rebuilding year. The 49ers should make the playoffs, and should give us plenty to cheer for, but I don’t think the defense is going to be up to the standards of the last three seasons, at least for a little while. That’s okay, though. The 49ers have drafted really heavily in the last few years, and this year we’ll see the fruits of Baalke’s labor. Redshirt players like Tank Carradine are going to get their first chance to play in a while, and rookies like Aaron Lynch and Bruce Ellington are going to fight for a role.

It is worth noting that my expectations were low last year too. Michael Crabtree’s injury was huge, and the 49ers still managed to weather it. We’ll see.

I also wanted to address what is the biggest storyline going into this game: Ray McDonald. The response to McDonald’s arrest and the 49ers’ stance has been simultaneously intriguing and nauseating. Tim Kawakami and Ann Killion both weighed in on the issue of McDonald playing while the police decide whether or not to take legal action. They did not like that the 49ers are going to wait and see what the police want to do, as that approach essentially shelters a man who in all likelihood abused a pregnant woman.

Many fans have fallen in lock step with Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, saying waiting it out is the right thing to do, as it shows that the organization has some measure of faith in McDonald’s character (McDonald maintains that he did nothing wrong). I don’t feel pulled one way or the other. I would prefer that McDonald sit, but I can also understand the 49ers’ thinking. Nobody disagrees on the point that McDonald should be cut if he is found guilty; it’s just a matter of how they treat him until then.

Even though I think Kawakami and Killion have the right to believe what they believe, that does not hide the fact that both of them, for a long time, have gone out of their way to attack the 49ers and Harbaugh. Kawakami has done little to hide his dislike of Harbaugh since he arrived, and has been making his bones alternating between speculation about Harbaugh’s future and towering moral screeds against the organization it is his job to cover.

The fact that I understand and respect their viewpoints in this instance does not take away from the opinion I and many others hold about them and some other Bay Area sports writers. This is a complex problem, but writers like Kawakami and Killion consistently fail to write informative stories about the 49ers. What makes them truly deplorable is that they continue to hide behind a veneer of journalistic integrity. Were they to admit that the combination of some personal animus and the pervasive reality that sensationalism gets clicks is what drives them, I would look at them more favorably.

49ers at Seahawks: Dealing With It

willisMichael Macor

The 49ers season ended yesterday with a slightly underthrown pass, tipped into the hands of Malcolm Smith. Despite leading a jaw-droppingly effective drive to Seattle’s 18 yard line, Colin Kaepernick failed to execute the perfect throw to put the 49ers over the edge. It is difficult to explain how I feel about this game. The 49ers, in my opinion, played a great game. They were playing their fourth straight road game, and were no doubt exhausted after winning in the cold at Lambeau and out-muscling the Panthers in Carolina. In a game where they had no real advantage, the 49ers managed to win through three quarters. Unfortunately, the referees got involved in the course of the game (more on that later) and the Seahawks were able to take advantage. All that said, it took a career play from one of the better defensive backs in the league to keep the 49ers from winning. Had a few things gone differently in the regular season, and the 49ers had the chance to play at home, there is do doubt in my mind that they would have won. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Run Game

Greg Roman yet again failed to use Frank Gore effectively. He had one of the worst games of his career, rushing just 11 times for 14 yards. However, this had more to do the play calling than Gore himself. The 49ers pushed him up the middle constantly into a stacked box. His largest gain of the day (9 yards) was off the right end, which allowed him to cut around Seattle’s front seven.

Fortunately, Kaepernick more than made up for this, rushing for 130 yards on 11 attempts, including a scorching 58 yard run that set up a 49ers touchdown. Overall, the run game gets good marks, partially for Kaep’s production and for the excellent downfield blocking.

Defense

The defense was ferocious on Sunday, keeping Marshawn Lynch bottled up for most of the game and hassling Russell Wilson constantly. Aldon Smith strip sacked Wilson on the first play of the game, allowing the 49ers to score 3 points early on. They gave up some big plays, but weathered the worst of what the Seahawks (and the referees) threw at them.

The Bad Things

Turnovers

The 49ers once again lost the turnover battle, losing the ball 3 times to the Seahawks’ 1. This has as much to do with the Seahawks’ ball security and commitment to the run as it has to do with the Kaep’s play. Forcing turnovers is the Seahawks’ bread and butter, and the 49ers could find the balance between moving the ball and playing conservatively.

Officiating

More on Gene Steratore’s poor effort here.

Other Things

Colin Kaepernick

The most interesting thing about this game was watching Kaep. We saw the best and worst of what the 49ers’ young quarterback has to offer, from his incredible speed and laser throws to his poor decision making and lack of touch. He carried the team in the first half, shredding the Seahawks on the ground, but couldn’t fully adapt to the Seahawks’ adjustments. He distributed the ball fairly well, but made a poor call throwing to Crabtree on the final play. If Kaep can learn to use short passes effectively and put better touch on the ball, the sky is the limit. Even if yesterday was his peak, the 49ers could still win a Super Bowl.

The “Seattle Curse”

One of the silver linings of this game was the overall feeling that the 49ers’ struggles in Seattle have less to do with the venue than originally thought. The crowd noise didn’t have any effect, and the 49ers looked much more composed on offense than week 2. As I said before the playoffs started, the 49ers can win in Seattle, and they nearly did yesterday.

49ers vs. Panthers: What to Watch For

Cam Newton, Ahmad Brooks

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

The 49ers are heading to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round. Just like last Sunday, this game is a replay of a matchup that took place in the regular season. However, the 49ers failed to strike a decisive blow against the Panthers in week 10. Instead, they wheezed out the worst offensive effort in Colin Kaepernick’s career as starting quarterback. This game promises to be very different from the last time these two teams met; the stakes are higher, and both teams are playing football elevated well above their just-enough-to-win sputtering in the regular season. The Panthers have two significant advantages: they will be playing at home after enjoying a week off, but the 49ers have more than enough talent to take them on.

Before I go into the details, I have to say that this game is the ‘all in’ moment for me. Should the 49ers fall short, I will be very bummed, but it wouldn’t bother me as much as a loss in the NFC Championship Game would. I don’t mind the Panthers; of the remaining NFC teams (besides the 49ers, of course), their road to the playoffs has been the most surprising and the least obnoxious. I didn’t have high hopes for this season, and I would be happier if my pessimism was realized against a team I don’t actively dislike. Should the 49ers win, they have to go to the Superbowl. A loss in Seattle or a defeat by the Saints in the last game at Candlestick Park would be truly unbearable. Here is what I will be watching for:

Comeback Players

The biggest story about the 49ers going into this game is how their rejuvenated offense will look. The last time they played Carolina, the offense piled up a measly 151 yards and failed to score a single touchdown. The Panthers’ front seven had their way with Kaep, but more importantly the 49ers lost both Vernon Davis and Garrett Celek to injuries mid-game. Both tight ends play a crucial role in run blocking, and Davis provides tremendous speed as a receiver. Both are healthy, and should help the offense get going a little better than they did in week 10.

Michael Crabtree did not see action against the Panthers. After Davis’ departure, Kaep was left with Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams as his primary targets. Needless to say, the passing game was lacking. Since Crabtree’s return, the 49ers have been on something of a hot streak:

Having Crabtree, Davis and Boldin will put a lot more pressure on the Panthers’ secondary, which wasn’t really tested the last time these teams met.

Aldon Smith is the final piece of the puzzle. He saw limited use against the Panthers in week 10, but has since become one of the best edge-rushers in the league. He harried the Packers last week, disrupting their entire offensive scheme with vicious bull rushes and constant pressure on Aaron Rodgers. His presence means big things for both him and his fellow pass rush specialists on Sunday.

Defense

The 49ers defense was incredible in week 10, and gave the team every opportunity to win. It is clear that they have the physicality and strategy to blunt the Panthers’ attack. Whether or not they can shake off the Lambeau chill and stand as strong on the road isn’t clear. Unlike the 49ers, the Panthers’ offense hasn’t changed much since week 10. Stout run defense and pass rush worked well in the past, and should be enough to contain Cam Newton and force him to turn over the ball.

Turnovers

In a defensive battle like this one promises to be, turnovers will be crucial. If the 49ers can keep Newton uncomfortable and be opportunistic, they can level the playing field. The Panthers match up really well with the 49ers and will have a friendly crowd supporting them; ball safety will be critical. The 49ers have won the turnover battle in the last six weeks, forcing 8 turnovers while only coughing up the ball 3 times. If the 49ers can continue that trend, they will be playing for a Super Bowl berth next week.

49ers at Packers: The Escape from Icy Oblivion

49ers Packers Football.JPEG-0cc90Mike Roemer/AP

The 49ers escaped Green Bay with a narrow win, advancing to the next round of the playoffs. It was one of the least enjoyable games of the season. It had the feel of the New Orleans and Carolina games, which were filled with inconsistency, offensive foibles and a constant struggle to get anything going. The performance of both teams was limited by the frosty temperature and the brownish, low traction loofah-field they were forced to play on. The Packers played with a lot of heart, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, doing their best to limit Frank Gore and try and force turnovers. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Michael Crabtree

Crab had his first really big game of the season, grabbing 8 passes for 125 yards, including a huge 31 yard reception on 4th down in the first quarter. He was mugged by Green Bay’s defensive backs all day, but still made a huge impact. Most importantly, his speed and ability to generate yards after catch seem to be returning.

Pass Rush

Aaron Rodgers saw a lot of turf on Sunday. He was sacked 4 times, and was constantly harassed by Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The 49ers defensive line stepped up at crucial moments, holding the Packers to 8 total yards in the first quarter. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Packers elected to go for it on 4th down. Ray McDonald got penetration and seemed to be on the verge of collecting another sack, but was flagrantly held.

This was the story of the day; the Packers offensive line was hard-pressed to handle the 49ers, and seemed willing to risk penalties to give Rodgers a chance to throw the ball. It was annoying to watch, but it also spoke highly of the ferocity of Smith, Brooks, McDonald, Justin Smith and Corey Lemonier.

Run Game

Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore once again tag-teamed the Packers, picking up 167 yards with 30 rushes for an average of 5.57 yards per attempt. On a day that Kaep struggled to pass consistently, it was a welcome constant in the offense. The Packers, who played an aggressive, turnover-focused defensive scheme, could not contain Kaep, who looked even faster than last year. Gore didn’t have a huge day numerically, but he provided critical blocks through the whole game and helped the 49ers answer Green Bay’s first touchdown with a 10 yard scoring run.

Health

No 49ers were seriously injured on Sunday. There were reports of cramps and other weather-related discomfort, but the team came out clean.

The Bad Things

Red Zone Execution

The play calling in the red zone was lacking. The 49ers advanced inside the Packers’ 20 yard line four times but only managed to score a touchdown once. A curious commitment to passing set the 49ers up for failure. The 49ers’ four losses were in some ways the result of this baffling, willful ignorance of what is working and what is not. After four blistering drives, Greg Roman refused to test the Packers’ readiness with some creative run plays. Poor play calling was a huge difference in this game; the 49ers could have won by a much larger margin and put the Packers in a much larger hole early on with some smarter red zone decisions.

Offensive Foibles

It is still amazing to me that the 49ers’ offense seemed to dominate the first quarter despite looking totally out of sorts. They screwed up plays, burned timeouts unnecessarily and stepped all over themselves. Some clutch plays from Crabtree and Kaep kept things going, but the offense seemed unable to relax and get into a rhythm. The 49ers have had trouble with clock management in the past, but things seemed especially bad in this game. It is difficult to tell whether this was the result of the weather, the playoff atmosphere or the crowd noise.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

NFL writers, bloggers and pundits have been quick to praise Kaep, but I am not as enthusiastic. He made some great plays, including a flawless touchdown throw to Vernon Davis in the 4th quarter, but he also made a multitude of mistakes and never looked truly in control. The 49ers’ final drive, the focal point of much of today’s commendation, was almost derailed before it began. Kaep nearly threw a game-ending interception on the 4th play of the drive, but managed to keep it together and burn enough clock to seal the win. On one hand, Kaepernick entered an environment that was extremely hostile in almost every respect and came away with a win. Playing in the cold on the road against a team eager for some revenge isn’t easy. On the other hand, he made mistakes that could have cost the 49ers dearly. Even the aforementioned throw to Vernon Davis was a dangerous one; it could have been easily defended or even intercepted had the throw not been absolutely perfect. Kaep showed his toughness by winning in less than ideal circumstances, but he also made some worrying mental errors and was inconsistent for much of the game. I hope this was more the result of the environment than his own abilities.

49ers vs. Packers: What to Watch For

49ers Packers FootballAP Photo

The 49ers’ playoff run begins on the road in Green Bay. They have had some recent success against the Packers, but this game promises to be a little different from the last three matchups. Aaron Rodgers has returned, helping the Packers wheeze into the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record. Many of the Packers starting offensive players are also back after missing time from injury, making this offense as potent as the one the 49ers saw in week 1. Oh, and its gonna be cold. In case you haven’t heard, this coldness may or may not affect the game, and will probably be the most talked-about factor on Sunday. Nobody seems to be giving the Packers a chance, but they are more than capable of keeping up with the 49ers as long as Aaron Rodgers is on point. Here is what I will be watching for:

Pass Rush

The 49ers have given up 740 yards passing over the last two games, well above average (200 yds/gm weeks 1-15). They have struggled with pass-heavy offenses for a while now, but Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer got particularly surgical against the 49ers’ secondary. Although much of the blame for this goes on some poor coverage, the pass rush has been sagging lately. Palmer, who was sacked an average of 3 times per game this season, was only sacked once on Sunday and was given far too much time to let plays develop. Aldon Smith, Ray Mcdonald, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks have been stingier against the run, but need to get the pass rush on line if they want to keep Rodgers under control.

Run Game

The Packers run defense has been on a downward slope since they stopped Frank Gore in week 1. Whether or not Gore and Kendall Hunter can get going will be a huge factor in the game. The cold conditions and inherent threat posed by the Packers’ offense means keeping the ball in control is essential if the 49ers want to stay out ahead. After getting bottled up last week, Gore needs to have a big day and pick up consistent yardage.

Balanced, Consistent Offense

The 49ers have beaten the Packers with run and pass-heavy approaches, but a balanced offense would be a good sign as they enter the tournament. Colin Kaepernick needs to distribute the ball on the air and ground, and keep turnovers to a minimum. The offense also needs to play a full four quarters, starting strong and adjusting to the Packers at halftime. They looked lost against the Cardinals in the second half and still managed to win, but they won’t have the luxury of waiting for the game to come to them against the Packers. A strong scoring effort through all four quarters will keep the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and keep the defense fresh.

Turnovers

The turnover battle was a huge factor the last time these two teams met. The 49ers won the turnover battle 2-0, helping even out the game early on. Kaep needs to continue his low-turnover streak and keep the ball safe. Forcing turnovers will help the 49ers wear down the Packers’ defense and score at will.