At the beginning of the season, it was considered a foregone conclusion that the San Francisco 49ers would win the NFC West and go to the playoffs. The only issue was what stadium the 49ers would be playing the NFC Championship in. To suggest otherwise was considered uncouth and ignorant.
Now, the playoffs don't seem quite so certain for the 49ers.
Will they make the playoffs? Probably. They still control their own destiny and lead their division. But the cracks are starting to show, and without plugging them up, this ship could sink and sink fast.
There are several things the 49ers need to address sooner rather than later: Their once-vaunted run defense has become inconsistent at best, while the play from the quarterback position has been good, but not nearly as great as the statistics would indicate. As physical as the offensive line is, it has also shown a tendency toward inconsistency in pass protection and run-blocking.
What should scare 49ers fans more than anything is that what was considered the most physical football team on the planet two months ago has been manhandled in each of its losses and its one tie.
So how do the 49ers solve these problems and make the playoffs?
Simple. Keep winning within the division, and the playoffs will take care of themselves. Beyond that, though, the 49ers need to find a way to channel the extreme physicality that they displayed throughout the 2011 season and during their six wins this season.
Isaac Sopoaga may be the most important player on the 49ers' defense, and the fact is that he is getting absolutely dominated at the point of attack in the run game. When Sopoaga holds his own, he occupies two blockers on the line of scrimmage, and this allows Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to roam from sideline to sideline unmolested. Those two have shown that there isn't a better pair of linebackers in the game when they have the space to operate and simply go after the ballcarrier rather than fight through blocks—while someone like Aldon Smith or Ahmad Brooks cleans things up.
When Sopoaga does not hold his own, the run defense becomes especially porous up the middle, as offensive linemen get to the second level and can take some shots at Willis and Bowman. As good as those two are, they aren't going to succeed if they continuously have linemen who outweigh them by 80 pounds charging at them like rhinoceroses suffering from delusions of grandeur. The 49ers know as well as anyone in the league that the inability to stop the run can be a crippling deficiency; their opponents are frequently on the receiving end of a brutal running game.
Without the ability to stop the run, this defense becomes much more "normal." Combine that with an offense that struggles at times to put points on the board, and this team suddenly looks very pedestrian.
There are other concerns with the 49ers, but this is the one that worries me the most and the one that presents the biggest threat to San Francisco's playoff hopes. Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks are primed to take advantage of this weakness, and their next meeting, in Seattle, is going much, much further in determining the division champion than was thought possible at the beginning of the season.
And to clarify, the blame should not be laid solely at Sopaga's feet. The entire defensive line is becoming suspect, and the depth issues that were whispered about prior to the start of the season are starting to become more glaring.
There isn't any suitable alternative sitting at home unsigned. The solution is already on the roster.
Justin Smith and Ray McDonald need to step up the level of their play, plain and simple, because there aren't any suitable alternatives available.
The playoffs are still within reach for the 49ers, and their lead in the division is enhanced by virtue of having already beaten Seattle once this year. A victory in Seattle next month will most likely put the division out of reach for the rest of the NFC West. But a lot can happen in the next couple weeks, and the 49ers' schedule looks a lot tougher than it did a month or two ago. Monday night's matchup with the Bears will be a classically-sadistic, physical affair between two of the best defenses in the league.
If the 49ers plan on living up to their deservedly high expectations, then they will need to see improved play along the defensive line this Monday night. That improvement needs to carry over from game to game, otherwise a suddenly-average run defense is going to have their hands full with running backs like Lynch, and opposing offenses will use this weakness to open up the passing game.
If not, the 49ers could very well watch their playoff hopes disappear.