Now, with the 49ers winners of five in a row and set to get back a pair of Pro Bowl players, an already loaded San Francisco team has moved to the head of the pack among Super Bowl contenders in the NFC.
It's been nothing but good news for the reigning conference champions this week.
As Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group reports, outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who left the team for substance-abuse treatment after a DUI arrest in September, has rejoined the team and is back on the practice field.
Defensive end Justin Smith said that the 24-year-old Smith, who has 38 sacks in his first 35 NFL games, "looks great and is ready to go." Smith admitted to Inman that he's eager to get back into action, hopefully this week against the Carolina Panthers:
"You know, it's crossing my mind," Smith said of possibly playing Sunday. "I'm just taking it one day at a time, getting back here, being around the guys and just getting my life back at home. I've got a 10-month-old son, so I'm doing the father thing. I'm just trying to make sure I'm all ready to go."
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reports that head coach Jim Harbaugh was evasive about Smith's Week 10 role, stating that "this is something that's being taken day to day."
It's a fair bet that Smith will work back into his usual role soon, but what's truly remarkable is that despite losing one of the NFL's best pass-rushers for five games, the 49ers didn't really experience a drop-off defensively.
|San Francisco 49ers Defense|
|Year||Yards Allowed||Pass Yards Allowed||Sacks/Game|
|2012||294.4 (3)||200.2 (4)||2.375 (11)|
|2013||325.1 (6)||220.5 (8)||2.125 (17)|
|NFL Rank in Parentheses|
Yes, the 49ers are allowing a few more total yards and passing yards, and the team has gotten to the quarterback slightly less frequently than a year ago. The difference isn't substantial, however, and the 49ers are still a top-six defense.
If San Francisco has been that good without Smith, how good can it be with him?
If Smith's return is a nice boost, the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree could be the sea-changer.
The 26-year-old, who had over 1,100 receiving yards in 2012, has missed the entirety of the 2013 season to this point after tearing his Achilles tendon in the offseason. As Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports, Crabtree has been cleared to practice.
No definitive timetable has been set for Crabtree's return to game action, but much like Smith, Crabtree told Taylor Price of the 49ers website that he's eager to get back at it:
Really get through a whole practice. Really get into the groove of things with "Kap" and those guys, the offensive line. Really just get in-tune with the whole team. Once I do that, I'm going to be ready to play.
The 49ers are likely even more eager than Crabtree to see him back on the field.
The reason is simple: Without Crabtree in the lineup, the 49ers offense has struggled mightily through the air. The team just can't effectively challenge defenses vertically with any regularity. The result is the NFL's worst passing offense.
The return of fellow wideout Mario Manningham, who is also back at practice, will help. But it's Crabtree who is the home run hitter, the deep threat who can beat defenses over the top and open things up underneath by stretching things out.
Neither player is likely to play full-time when the 49ers host the surging Carolina Panthers on Sunday, but if the 49ers can get past Carolina for their sixth straight win, then Harbaugh and Co. will be sitting pretty for the stretch run.
|NFC West Standings|
|San Francisco 49ers||6-2||1.5|
|St. Louis Rams||3-6||5|
|Entering Week 10|
As of right now, the 49ers sit one game back in the loss column in the NFC West, trailing the Seattle Seahawks. The same Seahawks who have struggled the last two weeks to beat the St. Louis Rams and winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A Week 14 showdown between the two teams looms on the schedule, with the 49ers looking to avenge the 29-3 beating they absorbed the last time they met.
First, though, comes a Week 11 date in New Orleans against the 6-2 Saints, a date that the team may well have circled on the calendar for Crabtree's return.
The Saints roared out of the gate, winning their first five games. However, Drew Brees and the boys have since dropped two of three, mainly because this year's defense has had flashbacks to last year's defense.
A win in the Superdome would be huge, not only to keep pace with Seattle, but also where playoff byes and home-field advantage are concerned.
Much like Seattle, the 49ers want no part of visiting the Big Easy in January.
It's important not to get too carried away here. Smith isn't back on the field yet. We haven't seen how much (if any) Crabtree will be hindered in his return from a serious injury.
With that said, though, as bye weeks go, things went about as well as they possibly could for the 49ers.
While nearly every other top contender in the NFC appears to have lost or be losing momentum, the San Francisco 49ers are gaining it.
It may well send them back to the Super Bowl.