The 49ers head into the playoffs intent on making amends for last year’s Super Bowl defeat. Which raises the question: Which 49ers team is better, the current one or the team that came within 5 yards of taking the lead at the end of last year’s big game?
It’s hard to argue that the 2013 49ers were superior to their 2012 selves. The team slumped offensively during stretches early in the season, there was an ugly incident involving Aldon Smith that caused him to leave the team for a month, it lost the division title to the Seattle Seahawks, and it has put itself in a position where it likely will have to win on the road three consecutive times to make it back to the Super Bowl.
But if you were to compare the 49ers at this precise point a year ago – entering the playoffs – with the current squad, you might come to a different conclusion. In my mind, the team that will play the Packers this Sunday is better than the one that hosted Green Bay a year ago.
For one thing, the receiving corps is better.
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The lasting image from the Super Bowl is of Colin Kaepernick three times trying to hit Michael Crabtree for a touchdown at the game’s end. Crabtree was the only pass catcher the quarterback trusted in that situation, and the Ravens seemed to know it.
This year, it’s as if there are two Crabtrees on the field. Kaepernick has developed just as powerful chemistry with Anquan Boldin as he did with Crabtree a year ago.
Boldin is vastly better than Randy Moss, Crabtree’s counterpart last year. He exudes toughness and leadership, and he showed a knack last year for coming up with big plays in the playoffs. During the 2012 regular season, Boldin had 921 receiving yards and four touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens. During the postseason, he had 380 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
What’s more, Kaepernick also seems to trust – that’s the key word with him because it doesn’t come easy – the team’s new No. 3 receiver, Quinton Patton, targeting him three times in Sunday’s finale, and more significantly, twice on critical plays in the fourth quarter.
The injury situation – though not ideal with two cornerbacks, Carlos Rogers and Eric Wright, dealing with hamstring strains – overall is better than it was a year ago.
At this point last season, defensive lineman Justin Smith essentially was playing with one arm that required surgery in February to repair a torn triceps tendon. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith also had shoulder surgery the same month.
Neither had a sack in the playoffs last year, and Justin Smith was dominated by Ravens guard Kelechi Osamele in the Super Bowl.
No one is dominating Justin Smith this year. He’s back at full strength, and the coaching staff has made sure to keep him as fresh as possible by regularly giving him plays off.
Aldon Smith, meanwhile, missed five games this season while in an alcohol treatment facility. As a result of that ordeal, however, he’s played roughly half the team’s defensive snaps. That is, the team’s best pass-rush duo is far healthier and should be far better equipped to wreak havoc than it was last postseason.
Finally, the special teams is miles better than it was at the start of last year’s playoffs.
Last Sunday, Phil Dawson struck a 54-yard field goal to break a tie in the fourth quarter and then calmly kicked the game winner from 40 yards as time expired. He’s made 88.9 percent of his attempts and is 4 of 6 from 50 or longer.
Contrast that with last year’s kicker, David Akers, who was terrible beyond 40 yards, twice missed potential game winners during the regular season and finished with a league-low 69 percent of his tries. At this time last year, the 49ers signed Billy Cundiff to see if he was a better option than Akers.
The coverage units also are better as is the return game now that LaMichael James has taken over. He’s averaging 10.9 yards a return, good for 10th in the league.
Most of all, the 49ers have gotten hot at just the right time – six consecutive victories heading into the playoffs. Last year’s 49ers never won more than two games in a row.
The trick, of course, is to stay hot, beginning in frigid Green Bay.