NFL scoreboard operators have been busy this season. 2011 has been the most offensively prolific season in recent memory.
In the year of the quarterback, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers ate NFL secondaries for breakfast. Passing records fell faster than Kim Kardashian’s marriage.
Some of the offensive feats accomplished this season were just astounding. Cam Newton throwing for 422 yards in his NFL debut. Green Bay’s backup QB Matt Flynn torching Detroit for 480 passing yards in the final week of the season. Rob Gronkowski and Calvin Johnson raiding the end zone like a fat kid getting into the cookie jar. It all leads to the same question: WHERE IS THE DEFENSE? Abu Dhabi?
Turns out it’s just past the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s right. The 49ers, the least talked about of the eight remaining playoff teams, own the NFL’s best run-defense. In fact San Francisco was so stingy in 2011, they only allowed three rushing touchdowns all season … and that number had been at zero until Marshawn Lynch broke through for a four-yard score in Week 16. Lynch was also the only back to rush for 100 yards against San Fran this season.
It wasn’t just San Francisco’s run defense that dominated in 2011: their pass defense frustrated opponents too. The Niners intercepted 23 passes this season (second-best in the league) and gave up the second fewest-points per game (only the Steelers allowed fewer points). San Fran also forced 20 fumbles (fourth-best) and recovered 15 of them (tied with Minnesota for most in the league).
While San Fran’s opponents have coughed up turnovers left and right, the Niners offense hasn’t been nearly as generous. San Francisco QB Alex Smith surrendered just five interceptions this season, helping the Niners to a +28 turnover differential, by far the best in pro football. Smith, who’s career has been largely overshadowed by the star quarterback who was drafted 23 picks after him (Aaron Rodgers), is the ultimate game manager, a doctor with a PHD in mistake-free football. His 90.7 QB rating and 3,144 passing yards this year are both career highs.
First in the division, the second-best record in pro football (13-3), eight Pro Bowlers but still, if you asked most experts, they’d tell you the 49ers are the weakest team remaining in the NFC Playoffs. As Justin Timberlake once asked, where is the love?
Defense doesn’t seem to get a lot of love anymore. In this day and age, offense is just sexier. People don’t tune in to watch the Niners force a three-and-out. They watch to see Drew Brees break records or Tim Tebow pull another miracle out of his you know what.
Have you ever seen a fan wearing an Alex Smith number 11 jersey? I doubt it. Handing the ball off and throwing for 200 yards a game doesn’t sell. The fans would rather wear Tom Brady’s number 12 because he throws for 330 yards a game and married a supermodel. Or they’d rather wear Marshawn Lynch’s number 24 because he eats Skittles and likes going to Applebee’s.
Loudmouth coaches like Rex Ryan and showboating players like Jerome Simpson and Stevie Johnson have stolen the spotlight this season. They’re the ones who get on SportsCenter, the ones who get tweeted about, the ones who have turned the NFL into some kind of Entourage-esque HBO dramedy. And where are Ryan, Simpson and Johnson this week? Sitting on the couch, watching, while the anonymous, defense-first 49ers that nobody seems to believe in are still playing football.
The only drama the 49ers have had all season was when head coach Jim Harbaugh shook Jim Schwartz’s hand too hard in Week Six. That’s it. Seriously, this is the most under-the-radar 13-win team you’ll ever see.
Turns out what the 49ers lack in star power, they make up for in strong character.
Several players on San Francisco have faced daunting obstacles in the past. Think making the Pro Bowl was easy for Patrick Willis? The 26-year-old has persevered through the death of his brother and grew up with a father who still struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. Kicker David Akers, who led the NFL in just about every kicking category this season, watched his six-year-old daughter battle cancer this year. Running back Frank Gore’s mother Liz, lost her battle with kidney disease during his third season with the 49ers. She was only 46.
These guys have been through a lot but the real question is, can they win against New Orleans on Saturday? The doubters like to point out that playing in the weak NFC West gave the 49ers an inflated record. Still, the Niners managed four wins against teams with winning records. Compare that to the heavily-favored Patriots in the AFC who have beaten just one winning team in 2011 (and that was the 9-8 Denver Broncos who they’ll play again Saturday night). Plus, this is a home game for San Francisco (7-1 at home this year) and the first playoff game at Candlestick Park since January of 2003. The 49ers fans will be more than ready to rock Candlestick come 1:30 tomorrow afternoon.
That’s not to say the Saints still aren’t the favorite. New Orleans has been here before. Brees has 18 postseason career touchdown passes to just two interceptions. Meanwhile, Saturday will be a totally new experience for the 49ers. Frank Gore, Alex Smith, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree have never played a single minute of playoff football.
The Saints are hot too: they put up a bazillion yards against the Lions last week and overall New Orleans hasn’t lost a game since Halloween.
Vegas says pick the Saints and it’s tough to argue. The odds will be stacked against San Francisco Saturday, but haven’t they always been? This team has overcome greater challenges than this. I’m not saying “pick the Niners” … I’m just telling you to give them a chance. They got this far didn’t they?
All photos were taken from ESPN.com.