The best thing you could say about the San Francisco 49ers' current winning streak is that the scoreboard has been sparkling at the end of every game. Really, the magnet schedule that's been on the refrigerator since the start of September is starting to gleam brighter than that straight-A second-grade report card that Mom never bothered to take down.
It all started with a road game against the St. Louis Rams. Playing without two of its star linebackers in Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, the Niners defense played a one-sided game of catch with Sam Bradford in a 35-11 smackdown. One week later the 49ers humiliated the Houston Texans 34-3. Then they outgunned the Arizona Cardinals 32-20. Next came a 31-17 drubbing of the Tennessee Titans. Then last week in London, only diplomatic immunity prevented them from being detained after they obliterated the Jaguars 42-10.
In the last five games, the 49ers have outscored their opponents 175-61 and haven't trailed once going into halftime.
The caveat: All of those blowouts came against teams without winning records. So what's going to happen this week when the 49ers face the suddenly surging Carolina Panthers?
Well, they're going to be an even better team with good additions like Mario Manningham and Aldon Smith and awesome minuses like Nnamdi Asomugha and Nate Stupar. And as easy as their schedule has been, they haven't needed a phalanx of fourth quarter miracles to avoid catastrophic upsets like the Seattle Seahawks this season.
But if the Niners want to separate themselves from their northern rivals, there are several questions they have to answer going into Week 10.
After realizing that Colin Kaepernick wasn't going to light up teams the way he did in Week 1 against the Packers, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman flipped the switch to the vintage smashmouth scheme that carried the offense when Alex Smith was under center.
Now we're all wondering, how good will Kaepernick be when his favorite targets from last season are back in the fold? While it was easy to make excuses for him when Kyle Williams was a starter, you'd need an abacus to count the number of open receivers he ignored on the field. With the offense finally coming into clearer focus, we'll know whether the third-year signal-caller really is the gleaming jewel, the arkenstone that was found buried beneath the 49ers' depth chart late last year.
Manningham played well with Kaepernick last season before getting injured, hauling in the second most receptions after Michael Crabtree. His effectiveness coming back from injury will be critical, as it will enable the 49ers to target every side of the field.
The Panthers defense is ranked third against the run this season, so the 49ers' kaledescopic attack will need another turn if it wants to continue its streak of 30-point games.
Any of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL would thrive with the 49ers' receiving corps. Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, Manningham and Vance McDonald...Fortunately, only one of those quarterbacks gets the keys to this Maserati.
Remember when DUIs weren't such a big deal? Well, after a six-week hiatus, Aldon Smith is presumably all better now, ready to put the past—a checkered one that recently included firing shots into the night with a handgun and crashing his car into a tree during the wee hours of the morning—behind him and concentrate on doing what he does best: terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
The only question: Is getting back one of the top linebackers in the NFL a good thing?
During Smith's absence from the team, the defense has allowed an average of 12 points per game, swarming around errant passes and even outscoring the offense on occasion. It also hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher once this season.
Why recalibrate a defense which has been mercilessly throttling its victims week after week?
Simply, the 49ers are horrendous at pressuring quarterbacks. Last season, Smith accounted for over half of the team's sack total and was on pace to break the single-season record before injuries derailed his chances and contributed to the 49ers' Super Bowl defeat. This year, the Niners are 27th in the NFL with a paltry 17 sacks.
The defense will be facing its second-biggest challenge of the season this week in Cam Newton, so it may help to have Smith on the field for third-down situations. He should slowly transition back into a starting role once he settles into the locker room atmosphere and gets used to the new ginger ale machine.
After one of the worst draft classes in recent memory last season, the 49ers are leaning on their cadets more heavily than ever before. Eric Reid has made Dashon Goldson look like the 2006 version of Windows Vista, sparking the secondary with his opportunistic coverage and ferocious hitting without causing the refs to throw around all the little yellow flags.
But Jim Harbaugh attempted to recruit Reid while he was at Stanford and Trent Baalke traded two draft picks to select him in April, so the 49ers were already expecting a lot out of him, especially after he won the starting job over Craig Dahl during the offseason.
Can they expect the same out of Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Vance McDonald and Corey Lemonier?
Carradine was a huge steal for the Niners in the draft, but like Marcus Lattimore, a torn ACL sinks stock value faster than a corporate scandal or a poor op-ed review.
Dial is a hulking presence on the defensive line who can deliver earth-shattering hits to running backs and quarterbacks. He played at the nose tackle and ends positions in college, so he could spell immediate relief for Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey, who are both still nursing injuries they suffered earlier in the season.
A five-man rotation of Smith, Dorsey, McDonald, Dial and Carradine, to go along with a linebacker corps of Smith, Willis, Ahmad Brooks, Dan Skuta and NaVorro Bowman could keep the 49ers defense fresh and rested until next year's NBA Finals.
Twenty-game football season, anyone?
Now that we've had a chance to sift through all of the albatrosses, the red herrings and the Kyle Williams', it's time to see where the 49ers stand in 2013. Their extended preseason is finally over. The long-awaited (and well-deserved) bye week has passed. Michael Crabtree is back on the practice field. Aldon Smith is clean and sober (though he'll likely have a breath-checker attached to his windshield for the rest of the year).
No one ever thought it would come against the Panthers, but Sunday's game will be the start of the second, more-challenging half of the 49ers' season. Since much of this year has been about building on momentum—with each victory more impressive than the last—they'll go into Sunday's game with one singular focus: Tear apart the Panthers and get ready for New Orleans.