Even as the San Francisco 49ers celebrated Sunday's 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, they had plenty of reason for concern heading into Super Bowl XVLII against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
Although the 49ers had one of the best pass defenses in the league during the season, giving up only 200.2 yards through the air per game, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan showed what can happen if a strong-armed quarterback is given enough time.
Ryan was sacked only once and was rarely under pressure while completing 30 of 42 passes for 396 yards and three touchdowns, the best outing of his career. Before the 49ers offense helped the defense by controlling the ball, the Falcons jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead as Ryan completed 18 of 24 passes for 271 yards and all three touchdowns in the first half.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who has one of the strongest arms in the league, completed 21 of 36 passes for 240 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions Sunday night in the Ravens' 28-13 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. That should give the 49ers plenty of anxiety.
The 49ers had a formidable pass rush through 15 games. Defensive lineman Justin Smith commanded extra attention from blockers, and that helped outside linebacker Aldon Smith get free to harass quarterbacks. Aldon had 19.5 sacks through 15 weeks and was within reach of former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5. However, Justin injured his left triceps muscle Dec. 16, and when he finally returned in the playoffs, against the Green Bay Packers, he had a brace on the arm.
He was in on four tackles against the Falcons, but he did not seem as effective as he was before the injury.
An another area of concern for San Francisco is placekicking.
In the third quarter Sunday, David Akers clanked a 38-yard field goal attempt off the left upright. It was his 14th miss of the season, the most in the league. The 49ers were concerned enough about Akers' inconsistency that they signed veteran Billy Cundiff on Jan. 1. However, Cundiff was waived Friday without getting into a game, leaving Akers as the only kicker on the roster.
Cundiff was looking for a chance at redemption in these playoffs. While playing for Baltimore last year, he missed a 32-yard attempt that would have forced overtime in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. After Akers' miss Sunday, it is possible that Cundiff may get yet another chance.
In the postgame ceremony, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., a finalist for the 2013 Hall of Fame Class, accepted the NFC championship trophy. DeBartolo was the honorary team captain.
DeBartolo ceded ownership of the franchise to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, when legal problems forced him to step aside in 2000. Although the family relationship was strained for years, DeBartolo has been welcomed back into the team picture since his nephew, Jed York, has taken control. Jed's passion has been compared to that of his uncle Eddie.
"We have been through this thick and thin," DeBartolo York said after her brother accepted the trophy. "The dynasty will prevail."