Well, to hear the cognoscenti do their cognoscentin', one might conclude Sunday's upcoming tussle with the Carolina Panthers is already locked, stocked, and barrelled. Once again, the San Francisco 49ers are everybody's favorite team, and the Panthers are a plucky bunch of overachievers who benefited from a soft schedule and a series of injured opponents. The same people who proclaimed Colin Kaepernick a flash-in-the-pan at midseason are now busy anointing him as the quickest, slickest, shootin'est QB in the league. Overwhelmingly, San Francisco is the talk of the NFL and the Panthers have been relegated to Washington Generals status.
In other words, it's time for us 49er fans to be concerned. Very concerned.
That the Niners, at full strength and on a memorable roll, ought to beat the Panthers on their home field is a reasonable expectation. But that they will is another. Last weekend's win over Green Bay, thrilling and rewarding as it was, left some concerns in its wake. Principally, those two first-quarter red-zone series which resulted in field goals instead of touchdowns bore an awfully uncomfortable resemblance to the frustrating finish in Super Bowl XLVII. Six times "Kap" was asked to deliver short "touch" passes into the tightest coverage scheme in pro football, the end-zone defense. Six times the Niners came up short. Oh, sure, they could have called interference on at least one of those plays, but this isn't the first time this has happened, and it's beginning to look uncomfortably like a habit. Might coach Harbaugh consider mixing in a few running plays in goal-to-go situations Sunday?
Carolina is a team who win games in a manner we all will find familiar; one thing we don't want to see is the 49ers playing to the opponent's strength, and risk getting beaten at our own game. Cam Newton is capable of making big game-breaking plays as does "Kap," and the Panthers' defense is built a lot like our own, with phenomenally active linebackers and a front four that can deliver pressure without resorting to the blitz. One advantage in the 49ers' favor is that the venerable Steve Smith may be at less than full strength, while our own Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, and Michael Crabtree are all playing at top level. We think the 49ers will win this game, but we expect it to be every bit as close as the exhaust-o-thon just completed.
As opposed to his goal-line struggles, Kaepernick was in much better shape on the medium-range throws to Crabtree (has he ever dropped a catchable pass?) and especially on that spectacular post-pattern perfecto to Davis which split two defenders and re-established the 49ers' advantage-- for good, as it turned out. And of course, no San Francisco-Green Bay game these days is complete without at least one sensational run by "Kap." This one had three, all of which set up scores and all of which showed off our QB's tremendous speed and athletic ability-- particularly that dagger-through-the-heart sideline scramble on the game's ultimate drive.
That five-minute possession was a defining moment for the young quarterback. The goal was clear from the outset: not only to drive to the winning score, but to use the clock in such a manner as to ensure Aaron Rodgers would not get back on the field unless a missed field goal forced overtime. And both Harbaugh and Kaepernick directed the action perfectly. Just as important as the third-down pass to Crabtree and the above-mentioned quarterback run was Frank Gore's short plunge for a critical first down that took the clock away from the Packers' control. Without naming names, we'll just say that controlling the final five minutes of a game while holding onto the the football is a 49er trademark we remember from the glory days, and this was a most timely delivery of the new updated version. Everybody take a bow!
As Alex Smith sliced and diced the Indianapolis Colts' defense during the first 35 minutes of Saturday's postseason opener, we were feeling awfully warmhearted toward the 49ers' former Number One pick. He showed flashes of the pinpoint accuracy and the heads-up running that carried the Niners past New Orleans two postseasons ago, and in our mind we were already composing lyrical prose about redemption and a possible scarlet-on-scarlet showdown come February. Then Andrew Luck happened, and-- well, is this how those selfsame Saints of an earlier generation felt watching a youngster named Montana back in December of 1980? In the end, it's hard to be too upset with this calamity, if that's what it is, because we believe the Colts match up well against the Evil Empire, whom they'll be facing Saturday night. People go broke betting against Belichick and Brady, but we think the Colts are physical enough, and Luck brilliant enough, to carry the day (or night).
Speaking of the Saints, who would have figured they'd win on the road with their running game and defense overcoming a mediocre effort from Drew Brees? Yet that's just what they did, and after 47 long years the New Orleans Saints have finally won a postseason game outside the Superdome. If they're going to continue this and pull off a colossal upset at Buster Eardrums Field up in Seattle Saturday, they'll need to depend on guys like Khiry Robinson and, Mark Ingram as much as on Brees, and they'll need to "out-physical" the Seahawks both ways. Still a longshot, especially in that outdoor insane asylum, but we'll be here pulling for 'em. And we hardly need cry for the Eagles (especially those few who went public with sore-loser comments) considering how far they came in one year with a brand-new system and the likelihood they'll be right back in it next year.
"Air Coryell" they're not, but the 2013 San Diego Chargers aren't chopped liver either. They got stronger and stronger as the Cincinnati game went on last Sunday, choking the life out of the game against a strong defense. Everybody seems to be blaming Andy Dalton for this loss, but howzabout we give Mike McCoy, his game plan, and his offensive line some credit for the win? Phillip Rivers is exactly the kind of quarterback who'll thrive in a game where he only has to throw six passes in the first half, and if Mr Less-Is-More is going to have any chance at upsetting Peyton Manning and his record-setting crew on Sunday, he'll need another grind-it-out clock-eating effort from Danny Woodhead, Ryan Matthews, and the offensive line. We don't think it'll be enough, even if it does work, but hey-- that's why they play the games, right?