I watched the NFL Replay of the Championship game and reflected on the season and have these observations. I also viewed the shortcuts of each game during the season (I find that watching the game again after a couple of days gives you a more objective perception of the game.
So here we go:
Top 5 reasons they are not in the Super Bowl this year:
1. OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION: The 49ers were good all season at holding onto the football, but failed to consistently get into the red zone, and when they did the did not come away with touchdowns. The 49ers had one of the worst 3rd down conversion rates and red zone efficiency rates in the NFL all season. Going 1-13 on 3rd downs in the Championship Game and getting into the red zone ONCE was not a fluke, just a dramatization of what happened all season. The only time they were in the red zone they came away with 3 points. Smith played like he had all year and frankly made some great plays with his arm and his legs that kept the 49ers in the game. HE did check down a lot but without the coaching tape it's hard to see if that was him or the receivers. I am not so sure the 49ers win this game without the Kyle Williams turnovers - I saw nothing late in the game to tell me the Niners would ever score in overtime absent a turnover or special teams return.
2. LUCK: The 49ers had good luck all season (injuries, turnovers, calls, etc.) but had almost no luck during the Championship Game. 2 fumbles lost, 2 fumbles not recovered, and 2 interceptions broken up by defenders. The 49ers won with turnovers all season and got 0 in the Championship Game. I am not positive on this, but I believe that in every win this year the 49ers got at least one turnover. The quick whistle on Bradshaw's forward progress may have been bad luck, but after looking at the tape, Harbaugh is just wrong on the call - the refs blew the whistle on forward progress quick the whole game. The bottom line is the 49ers got the 2 seed with good luck, beat NO with good luck, but lost to the Giants with bad luck. (I understand that turnovers are not just luck, but luck is often involved).
3. SPECIAL TEAMS: Wow, this was a surprise because it was a 49ers strength all season. Obviously Kyle Williams tried to do too much. He is actually a dynamic player, but made a critical mental error on the muff by not doing a fire drill and failed to secure the ball before entering traffic. It was the only special teams turnovers all season. Coverage unit and Akers were fine, but Lee actually had a sub-par game (for him). He out-kicked the coverage units and failed to pin the Giants deep most of the game.
4. LACK OF OUTSIDE THREAT: The Niners started the season with a promising and dynamic receiving corps: Morgan, Crabtree, Edwards, Ginn, and Williams. Only two of those receivers would play in the Championship game. Crabtree is a good/decent possession receiver but he is not a deep threat. Williams is a shifty small receiver but not a 1 or 2 (probably a 4 or spot receiver). Without any outside threat, the Giants were able to roll their coverage to Davis and bring in extra defenders against the run.
5. FRANK GORE: I am a huge Gore fan and think he has some gas left in the tank. However, the toll of carrying this offense over the years is starting to show and Gore played the second half of the season with nagging injury issues. Late in the game Hunter seemed to be running stronger than Gore and supposedly Dixon played those downs because Gore pulled himself out. I would have liked to see more running plays with Hunter late in the game instead of trying to run a hobbled Gore out of the shotgun. Maybe next year Hunter should be the 3rd down back as well as spelling Gore.
Now for the good stuff - 5 reasons the 49ers will get to the Super Bowl:
1. COACHING: Jim Harbarugh and his staff immediately changed the culture of this team. The fact that this team went from 6-10 to the Championship Game in one season with basically the same players is a testament to their coaching. While I don't expect them to go 13-3 next year, the Niners are back and will be heavily favored to win the division. The only blowout loss was to the Ravens on a very short week. Otherwise the team has been in every game and it seems that the coaches were getting the most out of almost all of the players.
2. DEFENSE: This is a very close second. Niners fans know the defense has been good for years but masked by a bad offense and bad coaching. This is a dominant defense. The pieces are all there - run stooping, pass rush and coverage. This is a unit that is built to win titles. Justin Smith still has 2-3 peak years left and almost everyone else is young and upcoming. This is a defense everyone else in the league does not want to play. The simply light it up. The fact that this team made it to the Championship Game with this offense is a testament to the defense.
3. SPECIAL TEAMS: The most underrated aspect of the game and the Niners have the best unit in the league. The coverage units are great, returns are good, and an all-pro kicker and punter. Ginn is worth re-signing just for special teams.
4. DYNAMIC RUNNING GAME: The team ran the ball well all year and Gore and Hunter made a great combination. The Niners were very creative in their run plays and got explosive run plays through scheming all season. They won the time of possession battle which helped keep the defense fresh. Hunter is a great all-around back and will only get better. Gore still has a couple of years left. Miller at FB is only going to get better. The offensive line is big and athletic in the run game. Dixon is a great locker room guy and contributes on special teams but a 3rd back is needed.
5. THE SEEDS OF A PASSING GAME: Let's start with Alex Smith. His stock has fluctuated with me more than the market has the last couple of years. Every time I am ready to give up he surprises me yet every time I am ready to buy he disappoints me. This year he had his best season and it is a new offense. I think given more time and new outside weapons he can be productive with this offense. He is never going to be Eli, but he could be Rich Gannon. And that is enough to get to the Super Bowl. His ability to run is also something I think we will see more of next year. Vernon Davis is an explosive mismatch who needs complementary threats. Walker is a dynamic #2 tight end. Crabtree is a #2 possession receiver who can develop into someone who can move the chains. Josh Morgan is a great #3 receiver who could become a #1. Gore and Hunter are both great receiving backs. Williams could become a small shifty slot receiver. The Niners have never had luck with free agent receivers, but need a big physical #1 who is a down-field threat. The offensive line seemed to play better in pass protection later in the season but still needs to gel as a unit.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The Niners will never have an easier path to the Super Bowl than they did this year. But that path was paved with good luck and good fortune. This team will be better in the years to come even though their record may not. But the Niners are back.