At 5:30 CST, on Fox, an NFC West team on the rise will play the New York Giants for the chance to represent its formerly beleaguered conference in Super Bowl XLVI. Their first-overall-pick quarterback had a breakout season in 2012; their star running back put a big year together, their talented tight end caught six touchdown passes, and their tough defense allowed just 14 points a game. Their new coach got all the credit, and probably deserved most of it. Ladies and gentlemen: The San Francisco 49ers.
It seems like more than six months ago, but back in August this was supposed to be the St. Louis Rams—the high-profile new coach, the talented quarterback, the veteran running back, even the tight ends who were supposed to finally take a big role in the new offense. The 49ers, 6-10 a year ago, finished 13-3; the Rams, for all their preseason hype, finished 2-14. Alex Smith got off the hot-seat and Sam Bradford was led onto it. Steven Jackson—well, he did everything he was supposed to, but he's Steven Jackson; he knows about having a big year on a non-contender.
So what happened? What should have happened?
The defense made a leap forward, instead of back. This is the big one. Last year the 49ers had one of the worst defenses in football, allowing 22 points a game in front of the ostensibly defense-oriented Mike Singletary. This year, with an outstanding rookie season from Aldon Smith and a new coordinator, Vic Fangio, they had the second stingiest defense in the NFL.
The Rams' 2011 success was personified by Sam Bradford, but it was built on their defense, which finally seemed to benefit from the ostensibly defense-oriented Steve Spagnuolo. That year they got a big season from veterans like James Hall and Fred Robbins to go with big years from Chris Long and James Laurinaitis and finished 12th in the NFL in points allowed.
This year they finished 26th. Robbins was invisible, Hall fell back to earth, and the Rams' own defensive rookie, Robert Quinn, was inexplicably on the bench for most of the season, finishing with five sacks and two blocked punts in limited playing time.
The offense was good, instead of the worst anyone has ever seen. Oh yeah, this too. Jim Harbaugh brought a relatively simple west-coast offense to the team that basically invented it, and the team responded immediately—Alex Smith had the kind of season that doesn't get you into a quarterback controversy with Troy Smith, and the 49ers' collection of achieving and under-achieving offensive names—Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis—all responded well to their newly competent quarterback.
The Rams. The Rams, unfortunately, had the lockout to deal with in the year they attempted to learn the Josh McDaniels offense, which—to hear a football player describe it—involves a doctoral-level understanding of quantum computation and the kind of decades-old muscle memory that allows people to earn perfect scores in Pac-Man.
I'm a Rams fan—I don't want to ever be misquoted as preferring simple offenses to complex, risky, awesome ones. But in this case the simple one scored 380 points, and the complex one scored 193.
So that's all it took: A defense that got much better instead of worse, and an offense that got better instead of much worse. To be honest, I'm not sure why the Rams didn't think of that themselves.