Last season the 49ers could afford to play below their standards because the NFC West was a rather weak division. The same cannot be said in 2012, when we are seeing all four teams in that division at .500 or better.
Simply put, San Francisco cannot afford to play inconsistent football if it wants to grab the division and acquire a first-round bye in the playoffs. Heck, it cannot afford to do so if it wants to even make the postseason.
The problem is that the San Francisco 49ers have been anything but consistent through their first six weeks of the 2012 NFL regular season. They opened up the year with two rather convincing victories against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions before laying a complete egg against the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis a couple weeks ago.
It seemed that the 49ers righted the ship with two stellar performances against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, outscoring those two opponents by a combined 79-3 score while putting up and NFL records against Buffalo.
Needless to say, expectations were that San Francisco was going to handle the New York Giants at home on Sunday. Obviously, the end result of that game was the polar opposite. The defending Super Bowl Champions controlled every single aspect of the game. They sacked 49ers' quarterbacks a total of six times and didn't allow Eli Manning to go down once. How San Francisco wasn't able to provide a consistent pass-rush, or any for that matter, is beyond me against what has to be considered a shoddy Giants' offensive line.
Alex Smith made poor decision after poor decision, throwing three key interceptions and looking every bit the part of the quarterback we became accustomed to prior to a breakout 2011 season. San Francisco's defense also allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to rush for 100 yards and actually score a touchdown on the ground. Both rarities under the Jim Harbaugh regime.
Speaking of the coaching staff, it appeared they were completely and utterly outclassed by their adversaries on the other side of the field. Vic Fangio called what has to be considered a bland game on defense, while Mark Roman and the offensive coaching staff couldn't get anything done against the Perry Fewell-led Giant's defense.
In short, it was an atrocious performance across the board for San Francisco.
While many just want to blame Smith's three interceptions for this loss, everyone needs to take some sort of blame for the performance. The coaching staff just didn't game-plan well enough. This is the second time in six games that they have been severely outcoached. Yes, Jim Harbaugh needs to, and did, take responsibility for the mishaps on Sunday.
But that isn't enough.
They need to get back to football 101. By this I mean, doing what works on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. There is absolutely no reason why Frank Gore ran the ball eight times for what is the best rushing offense, on average, in the National Football League. I don't care if David Akers' missed field goal early in the game changed momentum to the Giants. Harbaugh and Roman, among others, must keep the game plan relatively simple on offense. Use the run to open up the play-action for Smith.
Speaking of the enigmatic quarterback, who I had slated as a viable MVP candidate last week, he just didn't play a good football game. Instead, Smith struggled with his reads and made some horrible decisions, mainly the pass to Delanie Walker down the right sideline. You simply cannot afford to throw the ball in that type of situation.
Smith is better suited playing in close game or ahead. He isn't the type of quarterback who will lead a team back from a huge deficit. Of course, a lot of that has to do with poor pass-protection when the defense knows that Smith has to pass the ball on nearly every play. That was readily apparent on Sunday.
Defensively, it is back to fundamentals as well—make the tackle, wrap up and recognize the play. More importantly, the scheme needs to be less generic. San Francisco doesn't possess the coverage defensive backs that can sit back atop the defense while the quarterback is given seemingly unlimited time to pass the ball. Heck, no secondary in the NFL would be able to hold up with the amount of time Manning was given Sunday and Christian Ponder was given a few weeks earlier.
Send the blitzes from every angle of the defense, not just outside linebackers. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman need to be given more of a role against the pass as well. They are athletic freaks that would do well in terms of blitzing from the middle of the defense. One of the many quality things that Fangio has done since taking over as the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 2011 is mixing up packages to best utilize the personnel. He hasn't done that in both of San Francisco's losses this season.
In regards to the overall play of San Francisco, it needs to understand that showing up and playing base football isn't going to work against other top-tier opponents. This team needs to come in fired up in each and every game, not just the ones' that seem to take on a more important significance. For some reason, San Francisco came out in a very mild-mannered way against New York on Sunday. That just isn't acceptable and the coaching staff must take a majority of the blame there.
If the 49ers don't step up their game heading into Thursday night's tilt with joint division-leaders the Seattle Seahawks, they are going to come away with a second consecutive loss and many more questions.
That being said, I fully expect Harbaugh and company to have their team fired up and ready to take on Seattle. Even as important, their game plan will be much more sharp heading into this important game. Every time we have questioned Harbaugh he has come through smelling like roses. Let's see if this continues in two days.