I generally like to stay in the present whenever I analyze a football team, as the here and now are always the utmost priority, particularly in a playoff setting. But sometimes, when we are talking about the game of football, it’s hard not to let the mind wander and begin to honestly imagine the dazzling possibilities that have the potential to unfold as we watch a miraculous stretch of football unfolding before our very eyes.
The 49ers, even getting into the playoffs in the first place, took a gritty Week 18 performance that saw them come back from a 17-0 deficit on the road before having to force overtime by driving 88 yards for a touchdown in just over a minute of game clock. It took rebounding from a 3-5 start and finding a way to go 7-2 down the stretch for this possibility to exist. Everything about this run to close out the season has been extraordinary, and there has been no shortage of storylines to begin this postseason.
The 49ers had to go on the road to play arguably their fiercest rival in the team’s history in the Dallas Cowboys, the first time these storied franchises had met in the postseason in over 25 years. The stakes for the 49ers in this game? A chance to head to Lambeau Field, the cathedral of all cathedrals in NFL lore, to take on a Packers franchise they have seen in the postseason an eye-popping nine times since 1995.
Beyond this week, everything is rooted in chance and hypotheticals, but a world does exist where the 49ers outlast the Packers on the frozen Green Bay tundra to set themselves up with a date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship game. Could you imagine the Jimmy G. vs. Tom Brady storylines? We’d get every master vs. apprentice clichè in the history of mankind leading up to that game.
Say the 49ers can overmatch the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs and book a trip to LA to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 56. Who potentially could be waiting? Perhaps the Tennessee Titans, who heartbreakingly beat the 49ers back in week 15. Maybe the Cincinnati Bengals, who have had their championship dreams crushed at the hand of the 49ers on multiple occasions. Or could you imagine a chance at redemption with the Kansas City Chiefs, whose ferocious 4th quarter comeback prevented the 49ers from capturing Super Bowl glory just two years ago?
The scenarios are endless here, and they are just hypotheticals for now. Ultimately none of this matters unless the 49ers go into a very hostile environment and beat a team that deservedly secured the 1-seed in the NFC by dominating their competition all season. But when you step back and look at all the possibilities that are in play, there is a palpable sense of excitement when you examine the range of outcomes in front of the 49ers.
Possibilities like going into the stadiums of your two biggest rivals and ending their season prematurely. Or get a chance at redemption against the team that dashed the most recent hopes of hoisting a sixth Lombardi Trophy. And while the chips have to fall in a rather particular way for this to happen, the 49ers are still the ones who ultimately control their own destiny during these playoffs.
They are a team that will receive every “last team you want to face” “built for the playoffs” or any other clichè’ or overused moniker that appears whenever a lower seed catches fire the way the 49ers have in recent weeks. But the truth is, no matter how played out those sayings may be, the 49ers absolutely fit the bill and are every bit the prototype of a team that an opposing team would not want to deal with in the month of January.
There is far too much historical evidence to ignore the fact that pass rush and rushing offense travel in the playoffs. If you can hit the opposing team's quarterback and limit how often your own has to throw due to an effective rushing attack, you have a puncher's chance in any game. “Styles make fights,” and the 49ers play a style that makes the majority of teams uncomfortable when they are forced to adapt to the physicality and dynamism of the run game and pass rush in particular.
The 49ers are coming off of a game that saw them record a season high 31 pressures from 12 different players! Both of those numbers are absolutely ludicrous on their own, but it gets even more impressive when dive deeper into these stats.
12 players recorded a pressure
9 of them recorded multiple pressures
6 of them recorded at least 3 pressures
A defensive coordinator's dream is to get a dozen different players effectively tormenting the opposing quarterback. When your depth pieces are able to step up like that amid the absence of a superstar edge rusher like Nick Bosa, it begs the question of what this unit is truly capable of at full strength down this stretch run.
Another noteworthy statistic from this game, Charles Omenihu, who didn’t have a sack as a 49er prior to this game, led all players with 6 pressures and 1.5 sacks in this game. That kind of relentless pressure from rotational pieces is exactly what the 49ers will need to bank on if they are to have a realistic chance of pulling out wins on the road against the Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady’s of the world.
The rushing attack appears to be firing on all cylinders as well, going for 169 yards on 38 carries in the wild card round. Elijah Mitchell carried the ball 27 times for 96 yards, which on the surface may not seem impressive. Still, when you account for the context of the carries Mitchell got when Dallas was completely selling out to stop the run on the 49ers' last couple of possessions. Mitchell was running into loaded boxes with 9-10 players around the line of scrimmage; the average of 3.7 yards per carry climbs back north of 4.0 yards.
Deebo Samuel’s 72 yards on 10 carries was just the spark this offense needed to keep the Dallas defense off-balance, including a 26 yard touchdown run to push the 49ers lead to 16 points late in the 3rd quarter. Between Mitchell and Samuel, the 49ers have a dynamic duo of ball carriers that can effectively take turns wearing down opposing defenses by forcing them to match their physicality and tackle over the course of 60 minutes.
These electric playmakers and the dynamic scheme deployed by Kyle Shanahan and Mike McDaniel is the perfect marriage for an offensive line that has been operating at a high level for the majority of this season. It will be very interesting to see how the 49ers adjust to a Green Bay defense that held them to just 67 rushing yards on 21 carries in their week 3 meeting.
There is also some recent history that suggests it’s not crazy that a well rounded 6 seed can make a run through the NFL playoffs. Since the 6 seeded Steelers won Super Bowl XL following the 2005 season, six teams have advanced to their conference’s title game as the 6 seed in their respective conference that season. That includes the 2010 Packers, who won the Super Bowl that season.
This 49ers team has serious “2011 New York Giants” vibes to it, a team 49ers fans begrudgingly remember came into Candlestick and knocked off the Niners in the NFC Championship game before beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. That Giants team finished the regular season with an unspectacular 9-7 record, but when the playoffs came, they elevated to a level that proved too much for not only the 49ers and Patriots to overcome but also a 15-1 Packers team that got bounced in the Divisional round by those Giants.
The 49ers can follow a very similar path to success, as a devastating pass rush drove that Giants team but also had an elite playmaker on offense Victor Cruz (49ers have a handful of them but think Deebo if we’re making one single comparison) and a volatile QB who managed to string together some big throws in some big spots. Do I think that Jimmy Garoppolo is better than Eli Manning? No. But I do think Garoppolo is more than capable of mirroring the way Manning was able to do just enough in key moments to help his team advance through those playoffs.
So the 49ers' first step on this ever spectacular path in pursuit of their super bowl dreams can be checked off. They handled the Cowboys and now are facing an opportunity to remove one of the most dangerous contenders remaining in the playoff field. There is something special that can not be quantified about this team right now, and I can’t help but feel like there is a strong reason to believe that this squad is in the heart of a stretch of games that 49ers fans will remember for generations to come.