Now, there can be little doubt the two best teams in the NFL met two weeks ago in Seattle for the NFC Championship game.
The 49ers and Seahawks split their two regular-season meetings. Each team won on its home field. And a late-game interception in the end zone in the NFC title game clinched Seattle’s trip to Super Bowl XLVIII with a 23-17 victory.
First, a thought about that play:
Colin Kaepernick made the decision pre-snap to throw to Michael Crabtree, matched in single coverage against Richard Sherman, in the end zone on a stop-and-go route. The mistake was not the decision to challenge Sherman. The mistake that Kaepernick made was that he immediately telegraphed the throw. When he locked onto that throw, it gave linebacker Malcolm Smith enough time to trail the play to get into position for the interception. If Kaepernick had just given a quick glance to the left side, Smith would have been frozen and there's no way he would've gotten to the spot in time to intercept the pass. It would have been an incompletion, and the 49ers would’ve had a couple more chances.
The argument could be made that the 49ers lost the NFC Championship the moment the matchup was set for Seattle. Initially, I did not think the crowd noise in Seattle had much of an impact in the game. But after going back and watching it, it seemed as if the 49ers’ offensive line was a tick slow off the ball with their silent count.
The Seahawks front dominated the game, as they appeared to be getting off the ball faster than the 49ers’ line. The 49ers could not get anything going with their run game – other than their non-traditional run game with Colin Kaepernick accounting for all of the team's success on the ground.
So what do the 49ers have to do next season to wrestle the NFC West – and, more than likely, the NFC -- away from the Seahawks?
--Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, who the 49ers will try to re-sign, are physical receivers and good route-runners. Both can handle better than most wideouts the press style that the Seahawks cornerbacks employ. But the 49ers need more speed on the outside – or even from the slot position – to prevent Seattle from stacking the line of scrimmage.
--Kaepernick gives the 49ers a great chance against Seattle’s defense because of his explosive running. But he needs to continue to improve his grasp of reading defenses to be able to detect the vulnerabilities in the Seahawks defense from his pre-snap reads.
--The 49ers must utilize more of a rotation in the backfield. Running back Frank Gore still does a lot of things extremely well, but they need a fresh pair of legs that can attack the edges while also being a threat to run between the tackles.
--The 49ers need help in the secondary. They need recovery speed at cornerback and safety. The 49ers are going to be facing Russell Wilson for a lot of years. Wilson is at his best when he’s buying time. That puts a lot of pressure on a secondary. Nobody can cover for seven seconds. But when the ball is in the air, the 49ers need speed to be able to track the ball in the air and make plays against the Seahawks wideouts. Also, despite his huge cap figure, Percy Harvin figures to be around. The 49ers will need speed in their defensive backfield to prevent a big-play-waiting-to-happen.
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The Seahawks won the NFC West with a 13-3 record. The 49ers (12-4) were one game behind. The 49ers' losses came at Seattle, at home against Indianapolis, at home against Carolina and on the road against New Orleans. The 49ers were not far behind the Seahawks. But they were far enough behind the Seahawks to be at home watching as their rival simply destroyed the Denver Broncos, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Now, the 49ers' offseason quest is to make sure they are not spectators again next February in Arizona.
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