Despite Dominating Win, San Francisco 49ers Still Far from a Playoff Lock

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterNovember 26, 2013

USA Today

The San Francisco 49ers faced Washington on Monday Night Football and came away with a 27-6 win.

That's cute.

Washington is a team in free fall; a Super Bowl contender should dispatch that squad easily. Even after the win, the 7-4 49ers would still need a tiebreaker to make the playoffs over the Arizona Cardinals.

The season's not going to end today, and the 49ers are right in the middle of a thick knot of would-be NFC playoff teams. The way things are shaping up, they have absolutely no margin for error.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked like an MVP candidate coming into the season, but he hasn't lived up to the hype. 

Head coach Jim Harbaugh, lauded by the Associated Press as Coach of the Year in 2011 and achieving even more success in 2012, is animatedly skippering a boat that still seems to be anchored at shore.

The vaunted 49ers defense is no less formidable, but without explosive No. 1 receiver Michael Crabtree, they simply don't have the balance to consistently beat teams down the stretch.

Given the fierce competition for NFC playoff berths, they'll need to do just that.


Good, but Not Good Enough

The final numbers look great.

Kaepernick went 15-of-24 for 235 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Anquan Boldin got theirs, including highlight-reel catches like this one:

But all that ends well isn't necessarily well.

The 49ers punted on three of their five first-half possessions, scoring just 10 points on a Washington defense that had been allowing 31.1 points per game through Week 11—second-worst in the NFL.

Kaepernick was sacked twice and fumbled once, and the offense moved in fits and starts. No 49ers running back ran for more than five yards on any first-half play.

A last-second hurricane-kick field goal pulled Washington to within four points, at a halftime score of 10-6. The mix of conservative play-calling and ineffective execution was hamstringing the 49ers.

Vernon Davis losing a fumble on the 49ers' second-half opening drive gave Robert Griffin III a chance to give Washington the lead, but the opportunity was squandered. 

On the ensuing 49ers drive, Kaepernick and Boldin finally connected on a splash play, this 32-yard reception. That set up a six-yard Boldin touchdown that solidified the 49ers lead.

Aldon Smith sacked Griffin on the first play of the ensuing drive, leading to a three-and-out. A 17-yard return from LaMichael James and a five-yard Washington penalty perched Kaepernick and the 49ers on the Washington 40-yard line.

Two Frank Gore runs and two incompletions later, the 49ers turned the ball over on downs at the Washington 34. Washington, again, went three-and-out.

Finally, the 49ers capitalized, as Kaepernick and Davis cashed in from the Washington 1-yard line.

The 49ers added a field goal in the fourth quarter, and that was all she wrote.

What happens when the 49ers face another contender, though? A team with offensive weapons that can capitalize on all of the opportunities Kaepernick and the 49ers offense afforded them? Griffin and Washington had every chance to win this game.


On the Bubble

The 10-1 Seattle Seahawks have all but clinched the NFC West. Either the 9-2 New Orleans Saints or 8-3 Carolina Panthers will win the NFC South, leaving the other in the driver's seat for the first wild-card berth.

Either the 6-5 Detroit Lions, 6-5 Chicago Bears or 5-5-1 Green Bay Packers will win the NFC North, while the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles are vying for the NFC East crown, knotted at 6-5.

It's not only possible but also likely the 7-4 49ers will be fighting for their playoff lives all the way until Week 17, when they face the division-rival Cardinals on the road.

With games against the suddenly hot St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on top of rematches with the Seahawks and Cardinals, the 49ers are facing real tests in four of their final five games (apologies to the Atlanta Falcons).

To secure a playoff berth, the 49ers will need to win at least three of those games. And given the importance of tiebreakers, the divisional matchups with the Seahawks and Cardinals loom large.

The 49ers that beat Washington on Monday Night Football wouldn't have beaten either of those teams.


Pick Up the Pace

The clearest difference between the 49ers offense of 2013 and its more potent 2012 edition is the absence of Crabtree. 

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 03:  Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Francisco 49ers runs for yards after the catch past Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens during Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Merely waiting for Crabtree's return, however, isn't working. Even when he does return, it's unlikely he'll immediately regain his dominant form of late 2012.

As it stands, the 49ers have no vertical threat to stretch opposing defenses. Before the game against Washington, Kaepernick was averaging just 6.8 adjusted yards per attempt, down from an NFL-best 8.6 in 2012.

It's time for head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman to get creative. There's very little speed in the starting lineup, but they need to find a way to get players like multidimensional tailback LaMichael James involved.

Without being able to stretch the field vertically, perhaps spreading out the offense horizontally will do the trick. More receivers, and more aggressive route-running, should be able to open up the intermediate and deep passing games.

It may slow Frank Gore's running attack to have fewer blockers in front of him, but Gore had only 31 yards on 13 carries against the hardly stout Washington defense. If all of the multiple-tight end and jumbo sets aren't allowing the 49ers to run effectively, it's time to abandon them. 

However they do it, Roman and the 49ers coaches have to get defenses to respect Kaepernick's arm again. That's the only way their offense can get back to scoring points in bunches—and the 49ers can contend for another trip to the Super Bowl.


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