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Whether 49ers could succeed in playoffs

11/3/2011

It's tough to say the 6-1 San Francisco 49ers aren't getting respect.

They were second in ESPN's most recent NFL Power Rankings.

Unlike more established teams, the 49ers still invite skepticism for getting to 6-1 with an offense that ranks 23rd in yards per game, 26th in third-down conversion rate and 31st in passing yards.

Two words sum up the skepticism: Alex Smith.

"Normally, in the playoffs, you get in a game somewhere along the line where your offense has to make plays and your quarterback has to make throws," NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell told KNBR radio in San Francisco recently, summing up the prevailing logic. "We'll see what happens."

Let's take a closer look at the premise with an eye toward whether the 49ers have what it takes offensively to be better than good:

  • Are the 49ers scoring enough? Their offense has averaged 23.9 points per game. That figure, which discounts return touchdowns and safeties, ranks seventh in the NFL this season. Green Bay averaged 22.8 points per game on offense during the 2010 regular season, then won the Super Bowl. Philadelphia, New England and Indianapolis averaged more, but none of those teams won a playoff game.

  • The 49ers are extremely efficient. It's unusual for an offense to average 23.9 points per game without gaining many yards. How unusual? Think of it this way: The 49ers gain 12.95 yards per point on average, the third-lowest figure among 160 offenses since 2007. That is good and bad. The New England Patriots gained 12.16 yards per point in 2007, when they went undefeated. They averaged 12.54 last season, when they went 14-2. Those New England offenses averaged 33.8 (2007) and 29.0 (2010) points per game. They were far more prolific. But it's tough to argue with the 49ers' efficiency.

  • The playoffs are different, but how much? Six of 11 winning teams scored at least 30 points during playoff games last season. The 49ers are unusually strong on defense and special teams. They might not need to score as many points as other teams. Consider that 17 points would have won three of four wild-card games last season. Twenty-five points would have won every game in the divisional and championship rounds. Green Bay won the Super Bowl, 31-25.

  • Back to the yards per point thing. Since 2007, nine of the top 10 offenses in fewest yards per point scored at least 25.8 points per game. The current 49ers, at 23.9 points per game, were the exception. That might tell us the 49ers are a special team, or it could suggest they're on an unsustainable path.

  • Selective QB play has been enough. The 49ers have taken pressure off Smith. They aren't asking him to carry the team. Smith has responded by stepping up selectively, including during key moments of the 49ers' three fourth-quarter comeback victories this season. Smith is not going to carry the offense in a playoff game the way Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers did so memorably after the 2009 season.

  • Short fields are helping. The 49ers rank second to the New York Jets in average field position after kickoff returns. Their average is the 25.4-yard line. The 49ers rank second to the Cincinnati Bengals in average field position for all drive starts (their own 31.2). That means they have had less ground to cover to reach the end zone or get into field-goal range. David Akers has made all three field-goal tries from 50 yards or longer, making him one of three kickers to make every attempt from that distance this season.

  • Capacity for improvement. The 49ers averaged 214 yards per game over their first three games. They have averaged 381 yards per game over their subsequent four. Their average for yards per point on offense has risen from around 11.5 over the first three games to more than 14.0 in the last four games. They've been getting less "efficient" while becoming more productive. That seems like a good thing.

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on whether the 49ers can win playoff games with their current offense in the context of everything else -- their defense, special teams, running game and likely opponents. I wouldn't write them off just because Smith is their quarterback.

Take a look at what happened in the playoffs last season.

Peyton Manning's Colts and Tom Brady's Patriots lost to a New York Jets team that has generally sought to run the ball, play strong defense and minimize the impact of its quarterback. Mark Sanchez was mediocre against the Colts and good against the Patriots.

When the Jets finally lost to Pittsburgh in the championship round, Sanchez finished the game with 233 yards, two touchdowns and a 102.2 NFL passer rating. The Steelers held a 166-70 edge in rushing and scored with a fumble return, helping them win despite no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 35.5 passer rating from Ben Roethlisberger.

The 49ers would be better off with Rodgers, Brees or another Pro Bowl passer, of course. But they're doing exceptionally well without one and could, in my view, advance in the playoffs with the right matchup.

The chart shows where the 49ers rank in fewest yards per point among 160 offenses since 2007. I've included figures for the other NFC West teams this season. The St. Louis Rams rank 159th out of the 160 offenses. Only their 2009 offense was worse (26.45 vs. 26.30 yards per offensive point).

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2007-2011 Fewest Yards Per Point Scored on Offense (out of 160 offenses)