NFC West: 2012 Divisional Rapid Reaction

Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' performance during their 30-28 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC divisional round Sunday:

What it means: The Seahawks lost a heartbreaker after their fourth-quarter pass defense faltered once again, a recurring theme for Seattle. The Seahawks had taken a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds remaining. But they couldn't stop the Falcons from moving quickly into position for the winning field goal with eight seconds left. The team will have to address that aspect of its performance in the offseason.

What I liked: The Seahawks kept pushing and took the lead despite trailing by 20-0 and 27-7 margins in the second half. Russell Wilson completed 24 of 36 passes for 385 yards with two touchdowns and one interception (on a Hail Mary as the game ended). Zach Miller had eight receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown. Golden Tate had six receptions for 103 yards and a score. Wilson was outstanding in the second half despite getting less help than anticipated from Marshawn Lynch and the running game.

Rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner picked off a pass. Cornerback Richard Sherman batted down multiple passes in the secondary. Seattle's wide receivers also made a few impressive plays, including Tate's touchdown reception. Seattle had a good plan for the Falcons' screen game, which had been among the best in the NFL.

What I didn't like: Seattle was sloppy in its execution and decision-making. Getting zero points from two red zone possessions in the first half proved costly. Seattle failed to convert a fourth-and-1 when opting for a fullback handoff instead of giving the ball to Lynch. Later, the first-half clock ran out when Wilson took a third-down sack with no timeouts remaining. Getting six or 10 points from those chances would have changed the game for Seattle.

Blowing the 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left was inexcusable, but part of a pattern. The Detroit Lions came back to win in similar fashion against Seattle. Chicago came back to force overtime. Something needs to change for Seattle in those situations. The team led the NFL in points allowed this season, but couldn't finish.

Lynch held in check: Lynch scored the go-ahead touchdown, but this was a rough day for him. He carried 16 times for 46 yards (2.9 per carry). Lynch had missed practice time with a foot injury, but he started and was expected to perform as usual. The Falcons seemed ready for him. Also, Lynch did not seem 100 percent. Wilson was able to carry the load, but it would have been nice for Seattle if the ground game remained an option.

Receivers in check: Roddy White's 47-yard touchdown reception was big for the Falcons. Overall, however, the Seattle secondary limited the damage from Atlanta's talented wideouts. Julio Jones had six catches for 59 yards. White had five catches for 76 yards.

Rough day for Carroll: The fourth-and-1 call wasn't the only one putting Pete Carroll and the Seattle coaching staff at risk for criticism. Carroll also called timeout right before the Falcons missed the winning field goal try. The second try was good. Carroll appeared to be arguing with the officials after the timeout. I'm not sure what was going on there, but overall, Seattle did a poor job with clock management and some of the other detail-oriented aspects that tend to reflect coaching.

What's next: The Seahawks are finished. They'll watch division rival San Francisco visit the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 45, Packers 31

January, 12, 2013

Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round Saturday night at Candlestick Park:

What it means: The 49ers will play in the NFC Championship Game for a second consecutive season, and they’ll do it with one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL. Colin Kaepernick’s dominant performance against the Packers will put the Seattle-Atlanta winner on notice heading into the upcoming week. It also will extinguish any embers remaining from the debate over whether coach Jim Harbaugh was right in switching quarterbacks during the season. And with Justin Smith appearing healthy after suffering a triceps injury, the 49ers’ defense appears whole for the first time in weeks.

What I liked: Kaepernick bounced back quickly and decisively from the pick-six he threw on the 49ers’ opening possession. The second-year quarterback finished the first half with two touchdown passes, a 20-yard touchdown run and 11 carries for 107 yards. Kaepernick was the best player on the field for most of the game. That was one reason the 49ers converted seven of 10 chances on third down in the first half, up from converting five of 28 chances in two playoff games last season. They finished the game with 579 yards.

Receiver Michael Crabtree, second to Wes Welker in yards after the catch by ESPN’s charting, continued his surge with Kaepernick at quarterback. His two first-half touchdown receptions helped the 49ers take a 24-21 lead through two quarters. Crabtree finished with nine receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns. He is clearly the team's go-to target in the passing game. Tight end Vernon Davis, a nonfactor in the receiving game lately, drew a penalty for interference before making a 44-yard reception, a welcome sign for the 49ers.

The San Francisco defense was back to its old ways, getting enough pressure without blitzing, particularly as the game progressed. The sack numbers were not there for San Francisco, but it's not like Aaron Rodgers was comfortable in the pocket, either. The 49ers kept the Packers' big plays to an acceptable level given how dangerous Rodgers can be. Rodgers averaged 6.6 yards per pass attempt with two touchdowns, only one of them meaningful.

What I didn’t like: The pick-six Kaepernick threw early in the game gave the Packers a huge break, keeping the score closer than it should have been given how thoroughly the 49ers were dominating time of possession. That was about all there was not to like.

Back in action: Smith’s triceps injury threatened to declaw the 49ers’ defense. The Pro Bowl defensive end started the game, stayed on the field across all situations and played at a high level without obviously favoring his injured arm. All's well for the 49ers on defense when Smith is available and playing at this level.

Gutting it out: Niners left tackle Joe Staley appeared to suffer an arm injury early in the game. He was obviously in pain. Staley fought through the injury and fared well against Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who had won their individual matchup with 2.5 sacks back in Week 1. Kaepernick didn't have to worry about Matthews chasing him down. Of course, Kaepernick's mobility gave Matthews more to think about in this game relative to the Week 1 game featuring Alex Smith at quarterback. That helped out Staley and the other linemen.

What’s next: The 49ers face the Seattle-Atlanta winner in the NFC Championship Game. They would play the Seahawks at Candlestick Park. They would play the Falcons in the Georgia Dome.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 36, Saints 32

January, 14, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts after the San Francisco 49ers' 36-32 divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints on Saturday at Candlestick Park:

What it means: The 49ers are headed to the NFC title game against the winner of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game Sunday. They will play at home if the Giants win. They will visit Green Bay if the Packers win. Alex Smith and Vernon Davis showed their playoff mettle in leading the 49ers back from fourth-quarter deficits not once, but twice. This will go down as one of the great games in 49ers history and in NFL postseason history.

What I liked: Smith's winning 14-yard touchdown pass to Davis showed the 49ers were playing to win, not for overtime. On the 49ers' previous drive, Smith's 37-yard strike to Davis up the left sideline and 28-yard touchdown run on a beautifully executed keeper put the 49ers ahead with 2:11 remaining. The 49ers played the game on their terms early, delivering punishing hits while hawking the ball. They forced three first-quarter turnovers and built a 17-3 lead. Dashon Goldson outfoxed Drew Brees to pick off one pass. Tarell Brown made an athletic play for another interception. Smith capitalized on the turnovers, finding Davis for a 49-yard touchdown and Michael Crabtree for a 4-yarder that showed San Francisco has indeed made progress in the red zone recently. Donte Whitner in particular roughed up the Saints, knocking out running back Pierre Thomas with a concussion and pounding tight end Jimmy Graham. The defense held firm after the 49ers suffered their first turnover in six games, right before halftime.

What I didn't like: The 49ers' defense, ranked fourth overall in yards allowed per game during the regular season, gave up go-ahead pass plays covering 44 and 66 yards in the final five minutes. The 49ers forced four first-half turnovers and still led by only three. Smith paid for the aggressive offensive plan, taking third-down sacks, including one that led to the 49ers' first turnover since a Week 12 game at Baltimore. Crabtree, after making his scoring grab, had trouble holding onto the ball on contested throws. The 49ers needed him to win those battles. Goldson went for the big hit on Marques Colston, but Brees led Colston away from trouble, producing a 31-yard gain when the 49ers led by only six points in the third quarter. Frank Gore had seven drops during the season and had a hard time throwing in this game, sending one back to Smith on a hop to sap the potential from a trick play. The 49ers' defense cracked with the game on the line, allowing Darren Sproles' go-ahead 44-yard touchdown reception.

Play calling raised eyebrows: The 49ers' aggressiveness on offense led them away from the ground game. The early passing helped the 49ers take a 14-0 lead with scoring passes to Davis and Crabtree. Pass plays continued outnumbering runs as the game progressed, however, and the 49ers did not get into a rhythm on the ground. The 49ers had 29 pass attempts and 15 rushes through three quarters. They also had taken four sacks to that point, widening the disparity. The strategy was easy to question because the 49ers' wide receivers were not playing at a high level.

Defensive player of the year: It would be tough to argue against the 49ers' Justin Smith, the team's most consistent and consistently dominant player. Smith's brute power won out when he sacked Brees on third down when the 49ers absolutely needed a stop in the third quarter. Later, with 49ers up only three, Smith drove Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod into Brees for a sack. These were Reggie White-type plays at critical moments.

Injury notes: The 49ers got receiver Ted Ginn Jr. back from injury, but Ginn spent as much time on the exercise bike as on the field, it seemed. His knee was a problem. Ginn had trouble getting much traction in the return game and was called for pass interference late in the third quarter. Officials flagged receiver Kyle Williams for offensive interference on the next play. Both calls appeared straightforward. The Saints declined both.

What's next: The NFC title game.