It doesn't matter whether the San Francisco 49ers are going to have to play a wild-card game at home. Their primary focus needs to be winning Sunday against the lowly Arizona Cardinals, while staying healthy.
After that, the 49ers have at least a week to prepare for the postseason as NFC West Champions. It is during that time that San Francisco needs to start making decisions about what it plans to do and what it must change in order to be successful in the second season.
If you are reading this, Mr. Harbaugh, which I hope you are not, here are some of my somewhat obvious recommendations.
End the Conservatism
No, this isn't a political statement. Though, it could be just as controversial in the grand scheme of things in the hotbed of political indifference that is San Francisco.
What I mean by "end the conservatism" is that San Francisco needs to understand that it has the players on offense to make the necessary plays on third down. Too often over the course of the last two seasons offensive coordinator Greg Roman has dialed up conservative plays on third down.
I fully understand the necessity to be careful with the ball, but calling a three-yard out pattern on third-and-seven really isn't going to get it done a vast majority of the time.
The 49ers need to trust that Colin Kaepernick will go through the progressions and make the right reads. He hasn't given us any reason not to trust him. After all, Kaepernick is turning the ball over one time every 50 times he touches the ball (passing and rushing).
In order for San Francisco to defeat some really good offenses in the postseason, it is going to have to err on the side of trust here. It cannot afford three-and-outs because the coaching staff has come to the unsound conclusion that Kaepernick and Co. are going to make mistakes. That puts too much onus on a defense that has struggled recently.
Ride Frank Gore
This might seem to counteract my previous statement, but that's just on the surface. Gore has touched the ball just an average of 17 times per game thus far in 2012. This means that he should be plenty rested for the postseason.
The future Hall of Fame running back has also been one of the most productive at his position this season and has earned a much-deserved Pro Bowl nod.
|2011||22||143||Tampa Bay||W 48-3|
|2011||21||73||St. Louis||W 26-0|
|2012||22||77||New York (J)||W 34-0|
|2012||24||115||St. Louis||T 24-24|
|2012||21||101||New Orleans||W 31-21|
|2012||23||58||St. Louis||L 13-16|
|2012||23||117||New England||W 41-34|
While I don't like the idea of running on specific plays (draws on third-and-nine), it does make sense to ride Gore a great deal in January. There is absolutely no reason to save him for later. This is when it counts the most.
He needs to touch the ball a minimum of 20 times a game in order for the 49ers to achieve their ultimate goal.
Put Faith in the Youngsters
Carlos Rogers does not need to be lining up against opposing No. 1 receivers in the postseason. If San Francisco has to go up against the likes of Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant or Roddy White, the defensive back that should be called upon is Chris Culliver, who according to Pro Football Focus, ranks No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed per target this season.
Make no mistake about it, Culliver has been the better cover guy all season long. I could give two flicks of a beehive that Rogers was named an alternate in the Pro Bowl, he hasn't been worth a darn for a large majority of the season. It may sound harsh, but Rogers needs to be relegated to the slot with Culliver and Tarell Brown covering the outside.
While Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson have been solid all-around safeties this season, they're not good enough in coverage to mask the inefficiency that we have seen from Rogers for the vast majority of the season.
It really is that simple.
Make a Point of Forcing the Ball to Vernon Davis
The idea that a quarterback should force the ball anywhere on the football field is obscene. It goes against the fundamental characteristics of the position in the NFL. That being said, San Francisco cannot afford to have Davis disappear for large stretches in the postseason if it plans on making reservations to New Orleans in February.
In going back and watching game film, I have noticed one thing. Davis is getting open down the seam and between the hashes. For some reason, Kaepernick doesn't feel comfortable getting the ball to him in those situations.
That needs to change.
Eliminate the Idiocy
That might sound a bit harsh, but truer words have never been typed on a parchment. San Francisco ranks fifth on offensive penalties and third in penalty yards. That just isn't acceptable. The most important aspect, obvious to the untrained eye, is that a lot of these penalties have brought back some pretty big plays.
This might not be a huge deal against less-than-stellar opponents, but it will not work in the postseason.
On the other side of the ball, San Francisco has struggled with untimely personal-foul penalties. While a lot of these calls have been questionable at best, it is still important to understand the rules.
That being said, the 49ers defense cannot curtail their play and become less physical due to this. I am pretty sure that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and Co. will find a happy medium in the week or two between the regular season and the playoffs.
If these areas of concern are fixed, the 49ers will be in good position come the postseason. If not, they are going to struggle to win as much as one game in the second season.
It's a simple equation. Play to your strengths, eliminate mistakes and come prepared on Sundays. These are three things the 49ers have failed to do in the five games they haven't showed up for this season.
Despite a recent rash of injuries, this is still one of the most talented teams in the league. If it plays up to its level, San Francisco is going to be incredibly hard to beat. It now needs to go out there and put up or shut up.