Over the course of the final eight weeks of the season, the San Francisco 49ers have plenty of work to do if they want to establish themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders for the second straight season. The road won’t be easy from now until the end of December, but a 6-2 or 7-1 finish would help the organization continue its quest for its sixth Lombardi Trophy.
When one takes the time to examine the 49ers schedule, there’s no question fans and media members alike would agree that the most important games ahead are against the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals. Those three teams have a combined record of 18-7.
Additionally, only one of the three matchups will take place in front of San Francisco’s home crowd. No matter which way you look at it, each game will pose its own set of unique problems and prove to be an uphill battle for 60 minutes.
However, one less talked-about contest will test the Niners in all three phases. Yes, the St. Louis Rams seemingly had the 49ers' number in 2012, but that’s not the team that head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. should be afraid of.
The team they should be afraid of is their Week 10 opponent, the Carolina Panthers.
Pundits may not be completely sold on quarterback Cam Newton and the wide receiving corps outside of Steve Smith, but that doesn’t matter. The NFL lives by the motto, “What have you done for me lately?” And in recent weeks, Newton has been playing mistake-free football for the most part, and wideout Ted Ginn has slowly developed into a reliable pass-catching option on the outside.
Moreover, as it sits right now, they are the sixth and final seed in the NFC playoff picture. Surely they would prefer to be a higher seed, yet that’s not bound to happen as long as head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees are employed by the Saints.
Nonetheless, Carolina will have a chance to dethrone New Orleans twice in the next eight games. The Panthers will also have the opportunity to show experts that they have what it takes to consistently win on the road in a hostile environment.
Despite the fact they lost their first two road games of the year in Weeks 2 and 5, the Panthers have made winning away from their home crowd look easy. They steamrolled the Minnesota Vikings 35-10 in Week 6 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-13 in Week 8.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, the Vikings and Buccaneers don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the 49ers.
The 49ers' high win percentage at home under Harbaugh has baffled onlookers. They want to know how he instilled such mental toughness into this team. After years of mediocrity with Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary as head coaches, most were shocked to see such a fast turnaround.
So, which players have helped fuel the turnaround? Without a doubt, the offensive line, running back Frank Gore, tight end Vernon Davis, defensive lineman Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith have all played crucial roles in 40 games' time.
The problem is, when even one of those 11 guys mentioned above spends time out of the starting lineup, it messes up the camaraderie that the 49ers are so keen on. Luckily for the Niners, the offensive line, Gore, Davis, Justin Smith, Willis, Bowman and Aldon Smith will all be active come Sunday.
To beat the Panthers and keep pace with the Seahawks in the NFC West, every single star-studded player on San Francisco’s roster will have to make his presence felt. If he doesn’t, Carolina will seize the moment because it knows this particular contest has huge playoff implications.
It’s simple: Both the 49ers and Panthers are one game out of first place in their respective divisions, are jockeying for the fifth and sixth wild-card spots and need to win now just in case they lose a game here or there toward the end of the season.
If the 49ers want to reign victorious this coming Sunday, they will need to do three things.
First and foremost, they will need to stop the run. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Panthers have the second-best run-blocking offensive line in the NFL and the eighth-best rushing attack (130.1 yards per game).
The second thing that San Francisco will need to do is pound the rock and control the clock. Even though it sounds like wide receiver Mario Manningham will make his 2013 season debut, offensive coordinator Greg Roman will have to get his league-leading ground game (153 yards per game) cranked up against Carolina’s No. 2-ranked run defense.
There will be times when discouragement sets in for the 49ers. Running the ball right at one of the best front sevens in football will appear to be impossible more often than not, but perseverance will allow Roman to incorporate the play-action pass.
This is exactly what needs to happen, because the Niners are at their best when the offense is predicated on the run game and play-action fakes.Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee believes that the often inactive second-year player out of Oregon will finally get his chance this week to make a lasting impression on the coaching staff on Sunday.
It’s unclear whether or not James will take any snaps out of the backfield, yet with Kyle Williams’ return struggles looming, it’s safe to say the 195-pound second-round pick is preparing for a bigger role.
Regardless of his lack of experience as a punt returner, the 49ers special teams unit, especially the punt return unit, needs a shot in the arm. Maybe James will unseat Williams and improve one of the most dreadful return units in the league.
It won't be a walk in the park, but if the 49ers can execute their game plan and make good on the three things mentioned above, they will have no problem inching closer to a first-place finish in the NFC West.