San Francisco 49ers: Inside Slant
January, 5, 2014
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- How quickly we forget, right? The San Francisco 49ers were one goal-line stand away from winning the Super Bowl last season, and somehow we lost track of them as a handful of competitors stole our attention in 2013. So after watching one of the most impressive performances of the NFL season on Sunday, a 23-20 victory over a tough Green Bay Packers team in frigid conditions, let's establish a few truths as I see it:
The 49ers are the best team in football, and if they continue to play the way they did Sunday, they will win Super Bowl XLVIII next month.
Their offense is poised to outscore the Carolina Panthers next weekend in the NFC divisional round. Their defense is a good matchup for the Seattle Seahawks, their likely opponent in the NFC Championship Game. They're tougher than the Denver Broncos and more versatile than the New England Patriots.
I don't regard this prediction as particularly bold, at least not to an audience that has paid attention to the NFL over the past two months. Sunday marked the 49ers' seventh consecutive victory and their 12th in the past 14 games. Their two losses during that period came against two playoff teams (the Panthers and Saints) by a total of four points.
Sunday's game produced two championship-caliber answers in the fourth quarter, after the Packers took a 17-13 lead and later tied the game at 20, and I was left wondering if there is anything the 49ers aren't equipped to overcome.
"We're very confident," left tackle Joe Staley said, "and we've always been confident. That's not an issue with this football team. We are just going to keep working, respect the process for what brought us here and never take anything for granted in the playoffs, especially on the road."
I realize that a 20-point victory Sunday might have filled the 49ers bandwagon more quickly, but to me a championship-caliber team is measured best when it faces adverse conditions. No one cruises to the Super Bowl title. At some point, you must overcome circumstances that would otherwise sink you.
If Sunday's conditions at Lambeau Field -- 5 degrees, minus-10 wind chill -- impacted the 49ers, I didn't notice it. Coach Jim Harbaugh refused to wear a parka in the first half, comically stuffing his standard game-day attire with multiple layers, but I thought his stubbornness was an appropriate symbol as the 49ers refused to be dictated to by the Wisconsin winter.
(His quarterback one-upped him; Colin Kaepernick wouldn't wear sleeves of any kind. "I've played in cold weather before," Kaepernick said with a shrug.)
The 49ers committed just one turnover, were called for two penalties, converted 50 percent of their third downs and limited the Packers to three third-down conversions in 11 tries. They were as sharp as could have been expected, and yes, I'm aware that Packers cornerback Micah Hyde dropped what could have been a go-ahead interception with 4:14 remaining.
But please, let's not pretend the 49ers were one dropped interception away from a loss Sunday. At worst, Hyde would given the Packers a 27-20 lead. The 49ers would have had plenty of time to regain possession, drive the field and force overtime. Based on what we saw Sunday, can you doubt it?
"As the game went on," Staley said, "we were cool, calm and collected. We made some big plays. The confidence that everyone showed on that drive was awesome. Everyone was like, it's kind of fun to win on the last drive of the game. Let's go do it."
In championship fashion, the 49ers ran the final 5:06 off the clock while getting Phil Dawson in position for a 33-yard field goal on the final play. Kaepernick converted third-and-10 with a 17-yard pass to Michael Crabtree and third-and-8 with an 11-yard run. And to ensure the Packers couldn't get the ball back, tailback Frank Gore gained 3 yards on third-and-3 with 56 seconds left.
All told, it was a 14-play drive that restated the 49ers' championship chops with authority.
"To be able to put together a drive like that, under any conditions, that's big-time," Dawson said, "but especially with all the factors working against us."
You might note that Sunday's weather conditions actually were warmer than predicted. (Trust me. There is a difference between 5 degrees and minus-5, and minus-10 wind chill and minus-50.) As well, you might not be impressed with a three-point victory over an 8-7-1 team, but the Packers were at their 2013 best Sunday. If nothing else, the ascendance of tailback Eddie Lacy made them a tougher and more powerful opponent than the one the 49ers knocked out of the 2012 playoffs.
"They played a great game," Gore said. "It's just that we played better."
And that's what these 49ers are. They're the team that has played better than anyone else for the past two months. Harbaugh has made a spectacle of asking who has it better than the 49ers. Here's what I care about: Who is better than the 49ers? My answer: Nooooobody!