The comparisons between the 49ers of 1981 and the 2011 version are compelling. Both were teams with a strong defense and an offense based on mostly short passes. Both were led by young quarterbacks — Joe Montana was 25, Alex Smith is 27 — who were effective within the structure of the offense. Montana threw for 19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 88.7. Smith threw for 17 touchdowns, only five interceptions and a quarterback rating of 90.7. Both teams had outstanding coaches with a Stanford background, Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh.
But there are also significant differences. The biggest is the quality of the teams in their path to the Super Bowl.
In 1981, there was really only one outstanding team in the way of the 49ers: the Dallas Cowboys, who had thwarted their Super Bowl dreams three consecutive years, 1970-72. When the 49ers beat the Cowboys in a dramatic NFC championship game, 49er fans called it the real Super Bowl. The actual one, in which the Niners beat Cincinnati, was almost an anticlimax.
The current 49ers will face formidable roadblocks to even get to the Super Bowl. The first will probably be the New Orleans Saints, led by NFL record-setting quarterback Drew Brees. If they beat the Saints, the 49ers will probably have to travel to Green Bay to meet the Packers, who won last year’s Super Bowl and lost only once this season.
It helps that the Niners will have both a week bye and their first playoff game at home. The Saints were undefeated in their domed home stadium with its artificial turf that gives Brees’ receivers guaranteed firm footing. The Niners will face a stern challenge playing the Saints at Candlestick; it would have been nearly impossible playing them in New Orleans.
The 49ers are still a longshot to reach the Super Bowl. But they’ve been surprising everybody all season.
Remember the second game of the season when the Cowboys won in overtime at Candlestick? It seemed that Dallas was a premier team and the 49ers would again be also-rans. But now, the Niners are in the postseason and the Cowboys are at home.
Every step of the way, there have been doubters. The question has been: Can they win in the postseason, depending on their defense and limiting their offense? But they’ve continued to win, week after week, stumbling only against the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving Day and the Arizona Cardinals, and their defense kept them in both games. Only in the final few minutes of the last regular-season game against St. Louis did the defense falter, and what happened then should be a valuable lesson.
Offense sells tickets, but defense wins games. In the postseason, defense is even more important because a team with good defense is always in the game, so it doesn’t require as much offense to win.
My head tells me the Niners won’t make the Super Bowl, let alone win it. But I also thought they wouldn’t get by the Dallas roadblock in 1981, and you know how that turned out.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.