Entering the middle of November we are about to hit crunch time as it relates to playoff positioning and division races. Unlike last season, the San Francisco 49ers are in the middle of what promises to be a tremendous division race in the NFC West down the stretch. They are tied with the Seattle Seahawks in the win column, but two games ahead in the loss column. Yes, a tie will create that type of mass confusion in the NFL.
Following San Francisco's struggle against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday it is definitely in a precarious position heading into a Week 11 bout with the Chicago Bears, who are one game ahead in the win column and tied with San Francisco with two losses.
Alex Smith will be the true wild card here. While we have no clear indication whether the starting quarterback will play Monday after suffering a concussion against St. Louis, I would bet that he suits up and plays. If so, San Francisco will be in a much better situation heading into this important NFC clash.
I just don't like the idea of Colin Kaepernick going up against a Bears defense that has forced a whopping 30 turnovers in nine games. It would be strength against strength if Smith were actually able to play Monday.
The Bears rank 10th against the pass and have intercepted 19 balls in 345 attempts. That is one interception for every 19 passes attempted. Meanwhile, Smith has thrown just 10 interceptions in his last 26 starts, a span of 690 attempts. This nifty little calculator shows me that represents one interception per 27 passes.
Kaepernick also struggled a great deal protecting the ball in the backfield against St. Louis. While it did not come back to hurt San Francisco, he needs to do a better job recognizing pressure and holding the ball closer to him. It was literally like the second-year quarterback was holding a loaf of rye bread back there last week.
As it is, this is a huge game for San Francisco in the NFC playoff race. It doesn't just need to rebound following a lackluster performance at home on Sunday, it must start to actually play like a Super Bowl contender, something the 49ers haven't done in at least three games this season. A win against Chicago would give the 49ers the inside track for a first-round bye. A loss would put them in a precarious position in the NFC West, just a half of game ahead of the Seattle Seahawks.
Outside of the logistical concerns as they relate to seeding, San Francisco just needs to get back on track at home. It has won just one of its last three home games after going 9-1 in its previous 10 games at Candlestick.
While San Francisco has performed pretty well on the road in the Jim Harbaugh era, its road to the Super Bowl would be much easier going through Candlestick. A loss to Chicago and the 49ers could easily find themselves having to play a road game in the first round, depending on how the NFC West plays out moving forward.
That wouldn't be an ideal scenario for San Francisco heading into January. It is also important to note that the 49ers have only one "easy" game remaining (Week 17 against the Arizona Cardinals). Equally important to note, no game can be considered easy for a team that remains horribly inconsistent.
Following what promises to be a hard fought game with Chicago they have to travel to the Bayou to take on a suddenly hot New Orleans Saints team that just defeated the Atlanta Falcons last week. Beyond the fact that this game promises to have playoff implications, it is the first time that these two teams have met since the insta-classic NFC Divisional Playoff Game in January.
There promises to be some bad blood taking the field in this one as well. Remember, that January matchup marked Gregg Williams' final game as the Saints' defensive coordinator and represented the climax of the Bounty Gate scandal.
We already know that going into the Super Dome and winning a football game isn't going to be easy. That is magnified by the recent history between these two former NFC West rivals.
Wins against both the Bears and Saints would give San Francisco an 8-2-1 record through 12 weeks and a really good shot at possessing a first-round bye. It could also put them in contention with the Atlanta Falcons for the No. 1 overall side.
Two losses here, which seems pretty unlikely considering the 49ers' track record under Jim Harbaugh, would put them at 6-4-1 and smack dab in the middle of both the NFC West race and the wild-card race.
In short, these two games could go a long way in determining whether San Francisco can be considered a true Super Bowl contender heading down the stretch this season. Heck, it could make or break the 49ers' division championship hopes as well.
That being said, I am pretty darn sure that Harbaugh will have his boys ready to go for this two-week slate. They need to step up and prove that the inconsistency we have seen through the first 10 weeks will not continue throughout the remainder of the season.
Make no bones about it. This is a season-defining stretch for San Francisco.
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