The 49ers are supposed to do this, possibly without breaking a sweat. They are supposed to beat the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon and move on to the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The oddsmakers say it. The fans can taste it. The commemorative T-shirts are poised for commemoration.
What could possibly go wrong?
Hmmmmm. How much time have you got?
The 49ers have many strengths. It is why they are 41/2-point favorites over the Falcons, making Atlanta the biggest underdog as a No. 1 seed since the current playoff system was implemented in 1978.
But the 49ers are hardly perfect. Their generally pristine complexion still features several worry warts. Here are the five biggest:
(1) Stupid penalties
The 49ers were the seventh-most penalized team in the league this season, averaging about seven flags per game. Only one other team remaining in the playoffs, Baltimore, averaged more. A bad flag at the wrong time against Atlanta could be costly.
Some penalties are committed in the natural course of aggressive play. Those penalties -- say, an illegal block or defensive holding or a late hit -- aren't good. But they are understandable. Others are just baffling and silly. An example would be the taunting penalty on quarterback Colin Kaepernick in last Saturday's victory over Green Bay. Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers head coach, called it "a ticky-tack" flag.
A larger concern is the 49ers' penchant for offensive delay-of-game penalties, especially in loud road environments such as the Georgia Dome. Those flags result from taking too long to form and break the huddle, leaving insufficient time to change the play call at the line of scrimmage -- which takes even longer when the quarterback has to shout over a noisy crowd.
It's largely the duty of center Jonathan Goodwin to get things organized quickly between snaps. This week, Goodwin said his plan was to do "a lot of yelling to get guys back into the huddle faster." He should be plenty hoarse by game's end.
(2) A Crabtree shutdown
Michael Crabtree, far and away the 49ers' top receiver this season, is expected to play despite an on-going sexual assault allegation in San Francisco. But if he couldn't play, or his production was limited, the 49ers would be in trouble.
Crabtree had 85 catches during the regular season. That was more than twice as many as the next receiver on the list, Mario Manningham, who had 42 before suffering a season-ending injury. Last game, Crabtree had nine catches, more than the rest of his teammates combined.
A strong guy with strong hands, Crabtree might be able to fight through the blanket Atlanta will try to throw over him. But if he can't, where does Kaepernick go? Randy Moss' aging legs seem good for only two or three sprints downfield per game. Tight end Vernon Davis has been strangely nontargeted lately, though he did haul in one 44-yarder last week. Delanie Walker, the other 49ers tight end, is a skilled receiver but has been dropping passes.
Crabtree always seems to be there when needed for the 49ers. But what if he's not?
(3) A Kaepernick meltdown
The second-year quarterback has been a thrill ride since he was named the starter in midseason, and so far, he has handled adversity well. He rallied from his first-quarter mental-mistake interception last week to lead a touchdown drive on the next possession.
That said, Kaepernick owns a very short NFL résumé, consisting of just eight starts. We still don't know how he'll respond to every situation. What happens if he has a brain cramp at exactly the wrong time -- say, in the fourth quarter instead of the first quarter? What happens the first time he takes a big hit at the end of a run? And will all the attention he's received in such a rush, including a Sports Illustrated cover and network television attention, affect his concentration?
Addressing some of these issues after a practice this week, Kaepernick didn't sound overly concerned about getting hit ("You want to run away from where the defensive players are and when they get close, go down") or outside distractions ("I send everything to my agent and go about my business as normal -- I go home and watch anything on TV except sports").
For a 25-year-old guy, Kaepernick seems well-grounded with his mind happily uncluttered. Even so, there will be unknowns about him until they are definitely known.
(4) Special teams anxiety
Even the most casual fan is aware of place-kicker David Akers' recent wobbly performances. He was one of the NFL's best last season but has missed half of his attempts from beyond 40 yards this season. Akers did make a 36-yarder against Green Bay last week. But it remains a coin flip every time he draws back his left foot.
And the 49ers' special teams problems don't end there. Their kickoff coverage team was next-to-last in the NFL this season in terms of yards allowed. And there have been some bobbled punt returns by Ted Ginn Jr., reviving bad memories of Kyle Williams' two turnovers as a punt returner in last year's NFC title game. Williams is injured and won't be back there this year. But even he'll probably be holding his breath on every opposing punt Sunday.
That's a one-word term to describe too much casual arrogance. People wonder why the 49ers have failed to win three games in a row this season. The theory here: They win two and then they figure they're good enough to ease off the accelerator a bit. And then they crash.
The signs of hubris are subtle but visible. Blocks are sloppy instead of crisp. Passes are dropped instead of caught. That happened at Minnesota in September. It happened against St. Louis twice, in November and December. It can't happen at Atlanta.
"I think this is a confident team but not an overconfident team," Goodwin said last week.
We'll know for sure Sunday when the commemorative T-shirts are handed out. Until then, feel free to break a sweat.