Since the 49ers lost Justin Smith in the second half of their Week 15 matchup with the New England Patriots, most of the subsequent discussion has been about how bad the 49ers defense has looked in the six quarters since. There is no doubt the 49ers defense has been brutalized during that stretch, and losing Smith likely had plenty to do with that.
Earlier today, NFL.com writer Ian Rapoport had an interesting take on how this is actually a good thing for the 49ers:
Flaws have been exposed. With little-to-no negative effect, they've lost and given respected defensive coordinator Vic Fangio some ugly film. I trust he'll fix it. That's what the good ones do, especially after they've seen it.
I don't know that I agree there has been "little-to-no negative effect", given the drop from the No. 2 to No. 3 seed. They might still have lost in Seattle, but I'd still say it was a plenty negative effect.
That being said, I think there is something to this point. The 49ers have been able to rely on Justin Smith to act almost as two defenders given the constant double teams, and his overall domination. Vic Fangio now has to figure out how to operate without Justin Smith, or at best, a limited Justin Smith. Maybe Fangio is successful, maybe he fails. But the defensive coaching staff now has film against two very solid opponents that offer different approaches.
I realize part of this is a bit of wishful thinking on my part, but I think there is some logic behind the sentiment. We won't really find out until next week (or the week after pending a potential bye), but it is one thing to keep in mind when concerns are rising for now.