But, make no mistake. The NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons was a great game, particularly for students of the game. Only one team could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but I believe that both franchises have the opportunity for sustained success, competitive excellence and a long championship-quality rivalry. What did we learn from this outstanding game? What really happened? What will happen in the future?
Confidence is an extremely fragile thing for individuals and teams alike. How a team responds to losses of this type and magnitude can easily dictate the short- and long-range future of a franchise. How losses are analyzed and interpreted can make or break a team. How players and coaches react to the criticism from fans and the media can have a profound influence on the mindset and culture of a franchise. Confidence can be enhanced or self-esteem issues can be created by what the players and coaches do with their post-season assessment and learning that is done in the off-season.
Both team must be able to see this game as a stepping stone to greatness, evidence of success, an indicator of excellence and a valuable learning opportunity. Regardless of the outcome of the Super Bowl, both teams can build upon this superb season and improve.
It is likely that we will see the future Super Bowl champion as "the winner" and their opponent as "the loser." These labels can be deadly to teams, whose winning chemistry is fleeting and fragile at best. Many will look at the newly crowned winner with admiration and respect; and the other as a complete failure, an embarrassment to their city, their division and their conference, unworthy of its position as the representative of said group. Additionally, it is a mistake to look superficially at the stylistic differences in the quarterbacks, the offensive and defensive schemes and packages, the coaching and players personalities and style. Jumping to conclusions about the validity of one's team's characteristics, strategy, culture and philosophy over another can be highly misleading.
For example, the Falcons' head coach, Mike Smith, is often seen as a stoic, low-key leader who maintains a calm demeanor. The loss to the 49ers will shine a critical light on these coaching characteristics and many will scoff at his style and personality. Also likely is the notion that his outward game face contributed to the loss.
One the other hand, Jim Harbaugh, the 49er head coach, is a high-energy, frenetic, volatile bundle of emotion and hyperactivity. In the glow of a 49er win, it will be argued that Harbaugh's approach is more effective; a flavor of the month, prerequisite coaching style of the future and a necessary ingredient for success. That would be wrong. Obviously, both styles can (and do) work and neither should be changed or copied.
Despite the loss, the Falcon's offense has become a highly talented, precise, well-oiled machine that seems highly structured and controlled. The entire team led the league with the fewest penalties and penalty yards this year, suggestive of a highly disciplined and focused team. This team is just right for the New South, the steel and glass of an upscale Atlanta. The loss to San Francisco could alter this perception and create a need for change when little is needed.
By contrast, the 49ers are characterized by an aggressive, explosive, athletic, and star-studded defense. A caffeinated team like this accurately reflects an undisciplined and unbridled franchise. This style may perfectly suit a West Coast, Silicon Valley team. Offensively, Colin Kaepernick, who won the starting quarterback job from steady veteran, Alex Smith, is the epitome of that loose, freewheeling approach. Smith has always been seen as the opposite of Kaepernick: a game manager who despite his effectiveness was seen as a liability as a quarterback of a championship team. However, true or false, the Kaepernick-influenced 49ers style works for them and would not necessary work in other situations with different personnel.
Even if the 49ers lose in the Super Bowl, their recipe for success has been established.
The conference championship game was a viciously fought battle between a proud franchise with a history of winning and a rebuilt franchise learning to win one step at a time. However, neither franchise had approached this level of competitiveness and success since the mid-1990. The proud 49ers are 5-0 overall in their Super Bowl appearances and eager to have the opportunity to win a sixth. Over the past half-decade, the Falcons has slowly but surely developed into a regular season, home field juggernaut that has only recently won its first playoff game with this core of management, coaches and players.
The Falcons' quarterback, Matt Ryan, played two wonderful halves of football, one in the Division Playoff against the Seattle Seahawks, and one in the the first half of the 49er game. His precision and surgical-like dissection of the defenses in each game was impressive, masterful and highly effective. He led the Falcons to seemly insurmountable leads in each game. In the first half of each game, he appeared in full control of an explosive offense. Ryan displayed a gift for execution and technical abilities found in few quarterbacks. Critics of Ryan point to his inability to run effectively or improvise on the fly as a fatal weakness, especially in contrast to Kaepernick.
What the Falcons seemed to lack after halftime in each contest was the flexibility and the ability to make adjustments that would allow them to continue to dominate the game. It appeared that they succumbed to the natural tendency toward complacency that often follows short-term success. They shifted to an mentality that focused on the avoidance of losing rather than winning. This mindset prevented them from finishing the game with a flourish. They became tentative, cautious, and protective; wishing for the game to end as it were. Rather than keeping the pedal to the metal, they rode the brakes.
In contrast, it appeared that the 49ers second-year quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, was more flexible, more resilient, more creative, with a greater capacity to adjust to the evolving game conditions. His ability create a balanced threat to run or pass kept the Falcons defensive on their heels, particularly in the second half. The fatigue this created within the Falcons' defense was a key to the 49er victory (as well as the Seahawks' impressive comeback). The victory was a team victory attributable to many facets and factors beyond the young man in the quarterback slot. A win or a loss in the Super Bowl should not blind the 49ers to their strengths, build over time and attributable to much hard work.
Despite a season of objective success, losing in the playoffs is often followed by intense criticism, second-guessing, loud calls for complete overhauls of coaching staffs and player personnel, and knee-jerk reactions. Questioning of commitment, effort, talent, excessive age or youth is prevalent during the off-season. Despite the fact that only two NFL teams have achieved more this season, the Falcons and their AFC counterpart in so-called failure, the New England Patriots, are being raked over the coals.
Regardless of the outcome of the Super Bowl, all the Final Four participants, the Falcons, Patriots, 49ers and Ravens would do well to carefully and logically assess their seasons, keep their wits about them, and avoid panic and overreaction to celebrate and build on a job well done. Only in this way, can each franchise capitalize on the hard work and success of this incredible NFL season. They must cultivate a mentally tough mindset that keeps them on the road to sustainable championship-caliber contention for the long term.
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