Every game is precious for Jim Harbaugh's crew. The playoffs have unofficially started for the San Francisco 49ers. The first phase of this process must begin with beating the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
The 49ers still have a good shot at nailing down one of the first-round byes in the NFC playoffs, but they better find some consistency. Following another head-scratching performance against the St. Louis Rams, the Niners are 8-3-1.
The tie they settled for in Week 10 against the Rams is part of what separates them from the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. They did beat the Packers and Bears head-to-head in Week 1 and Week 11, respectively, but things are a little snug for the spot just beneath the 11-1 Atlanta Falcons.
The Dolphins are one of three long-shot playoff hopefuls in the AFC East. The New England Patriots already clinched the division, and the Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets are all 5-7.
They need to get hot and hope for some slippages from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts if they hope to sneak into the playoffs.
It's that time of the year again, if you still have playoff hopes alive, every game is a must-win.
Where: Candlestick Park, San Francisco, Calif.
When: Sunday, December 9, 4:05 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Spread: San Francisco (-10) per Bovada
Neither team has released an official injury report.
Quarterback Pat Devlin was inactive for Week 13, but that's the equivalent of a tree falling in the forest when no one is around.
Former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long has been placed on injured reserve, and he is done for the season, per the Miami Herald.
The four-time Pro Bowler is a free agent after this season, and many are anticipating Long has played his last game as a Dolphin.
Payne Insider shells out some of Long's less-than-stellar stats from the 2012 season. That said, you can bet he'll have his share of suitors, if he is allowed to hit the market.
Jake Long placed on injured reserve. Led team in penalties (7), second in sacks allowed (5). Could've been his last game for the #Dolphins.— PayneInsider.com (@PayneInsider) December 5, 2012
Mario Manningham did leave the game in Week 13. Per Niners Nation, he is still battling the injury. Manningham indicated he would be fine on his own Twitter account.
49ers injury report: Mario Manningham dealing with shoulder issue sbn.to/TEEYBO— NinersNation (@NinersNation) December 3, 2012
Shoulder will be fine thanks for asking appreciate it have a good1— Mario Manningham (@Manningham49ers) December 4, 2012
Fantasy Stud, Dud and Sleeper
The Stud—Colin Kaepernick
The Dolphins pass defense hasn't been very good this season. It has allowed the sixth-most yards through the air in the NFL.
Recently, opposing wide receivers haven't had huge days—with the exception of Wes Welker—but quarterbacks have gotten fat spreading the ball around against the Fins.
The Niners don't have a dominant receiver on the roster, but I expect to see Kaepernick spread his wings a bit in this one. The Niners need to keep his confidence high after the loss to the Rams.
He'll have throwing opportunities, and the Dolphins are a defense he can have success against.
The Dud—Ryan Tannehill
The Dolphins' rookie quarterback has been up and down this season—as expected. Some of his worst performances have come against 3-4 defenses, and the Niners bring that base formation in a major way.
Aldon Smith is a handful for any LT, and he'll be in Tannehill's head. So you should keep Tannehill out of your lineup.
The Sleeper—LaMichael James
The word is that James should see his first game action this week.
The mercurial rookie back from Oregon has game-breaking ability, and he should finally get an opportunity to play with Kendall Hunter lost for the season, per Detroit Free Press.
James can be a major factor as a third-down option.
Notable Quotes, Strategies and Trash Talk
Reshad Jones the Pro Bowler?
Folks around Miami are trying to make the case for Jones as a Pro Bowl safety.
SunSentinel Dolphins (@SSMiamiDolphins) December 5, 2012
Jones has three interceptions, seven passes defended, one sack, two forced fumbles and 58 tackles on the season. The 24-year-old has had a breakout season, and he's the one of the best players on a good, young Dolphins defense.
Harbaugh Still Backing Kaepernick
Despite the loss to the Rams, Harbaugh showed nothing but support for his new starting quarterback. He told Fox Sports this of Kaepernick's performance:
Just a winning quarterback performance in tough circumstance. In the evaluation, I thought Colin played well, did a lot of really good things, made some good decisions... I thought some real positives to take away from his performance.
At this point, he has no other choice. He took a huge gamble by benching Alex Smith for no good reason. He has to ride or die with Kaepernick.
#49ers: You can't switch QBs every time someone has a bad game. Kaepernick is the answer. Period.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 2, 2012
The Dolphins must limit turnovers if they are going to have a shot at winning this game. Tannehill figures to be under pressure, but he must be smart with his throws.
The Niners defense hasn't taken the ball away quite as much as it did last season. They have only 17 takeaways this year, compared to 38 in 2011. However, the pressure they are getting on the quarterback is still significant.
They had 42 sacks last year, and they have 30 through 12 games this season. Tannehill must have his best game against the pressure if the Fins are going to win.
Kaepernick needs to get things going early. Using Davis in the passing game is the best way. Hitting him on short completions and allowing him to run after the catch would get the offense moving and give Kaepernick confidence early.
What number will be higher?
This is an important week for Kaepernick and the Niners offense. He needs to utilize Davis, who is still the Niners' most dangerous weapon.
The Niners should win this game by double digits. I love what Reggie Bush has done this season, but they won't get the quarterback or offensive line play they need to keep the Niners' pass rush at bay.
Niners will win 21-9.
Follow Brian Mazique and Franchiseplay on YouTube and Twitter for reactions, analysis and news from the world of sports and sports video games