At 9-2 after 11 regular-season games, the 2012 Baltimore Ravens found themselves in prime position to secure one of the top two seeds in the AFC. That would entitle them to at least a first-round bye in the playoffs and, if things shook out in their favor, home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Then it got ugly.
A forgettable stretch of football ensued, as the Ravens lost four of their last five games (one of which, to be fair, was a meaningless Week 17 affair against the Bengals in which they rested many starters). It's fair to say no team entered the postseason looking worse. As we all know, the bad form didn't hold. Baltimore beat the Colts at home and then the Broncos and Patriots in road games, then went on to win Super Bowl XLVII as an underdog. This should serve to remind us that how a team finishes the regular season assures us nothing regarding their postseason fate. In other words, momentum -- positive or negative -- doesn't seem to count in playoff football. And the examples extend well beyond Baltimore.
And while there are teams that seem to draw a consensus label of "opponents no one wants to face" in the postseason, that often is due to current form. And while that debatable concept in part applies to this example, with the regular season behind us and the postseason around the corner, one team stands above the rest of those who will be playing this weekend. That would be San Francisco, even though the 49ers won't even play a home game during the upcoming wild-card weekend; they're traveling to take on the Green Bay Packers, who clinched the NFC North in Week 17. One can look at the 49ers' unblemished final six weeks of the regular season and easily enough assert that they're a team to keep an eye on in the NFL's second season, but let's dig a little bit beyond the recent results into why this team is a threat to emerge from the NFC.