The San Francisco 49ers have played through the majority of the 2013 season with a forward-thinking mantra. Remain competitive and get healthy, and then the whole picture will finally come together.
Well, here we are in Week 13 and the cavalry has arrived. In other words, it's time for the 49ers to put their money where their mouth is.
With Tuesday's activation of wide receiver Michael Crabtree (per 49ers.com), San Francisco finally has all of the pieces in place. It remains to be seen how much Crabtree can contribute right away, but this is what the team has waited for all season.
Currently standing at 7-4 with three division games remaining on the slate, the 49ers are in control of their playoff destiny. With a decimated roster and some unlucky breaks, that's about as much as this team could have hoped for with only five games left to play.
|Week 13||vs. St. Louis Rams||5-6|
|Week 14||vs. Seattle Seahawks||10-1|
|Week 15||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||3-8|
|Week 16||vs. Atlanta Falcons||2-9|
|Week 17||at Arizon Cardinals||7-4|
As Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com notes, the 49ers are truly in the driver's seat when it comes to playoff position. The 49ers are currently holding on to the final NFC wild-card spot due to a tiebreaker with the Arizona Cardinals, while also looking at weaker opposition over the final five games.
With Crabtree, wide receiver Mario Manningham and linebacker Aldon Smith now back in the fold for this stretch run, the 49ers won't have anyone else to blame if they fall short.
Of course, the real problem for this team has been consistency against stronger opposition. Peter King of MMQB.com saw a bit of last year's 49ers in Monday night's win over the Washington Redskins, but was particularly encouraged by Crabtree's imminent return:
Crabtree was Kaepernick’s favorite target in 2012 and would have been this year but for an injury in off-season training. With Crabtree and Anquan Boldin (on pace for a 76-catch season) playing in tandem, there shouldn’t be any excuse for some of the feeble games this offense has been playing this season.
King's analysis points to a continuing problem for the 49ers offense in 2013, especially when playing top-tier competition. San Francisco has bullied weaker opponents but fallen short against playoff teams, as Maiocco noted in this tweet:
The 49ers' seven wins have come against teams with combined 28-47-1 record. Their four losses have come against teams that are 34-10.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) November 26, 2013
Beating weaker opponents is the first step to fielding a playoff team, but it will take more to succeed when it counts. These struggles can be attributed to several different factors, including play-calling, depth at wide receiver and the play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The 49ers also balked at making a deal before the trade deadline, instead opting to wait on the returns of Crabtree and Manningham to salvage the passing game.
With Crabtree now active, the 49ers will hope that they can force stronger defenses to respect the pass. As seen in this tweet from Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, the New Orleans Saints commonly loaded the box to stop running back Frank Gore in Week 11:
Gore has had a phenomenal season at age 30, but asking him to consistently beat loaded fronts from playoff defenses is asking for a miracle. With his trusted receivers back on the field, Kaepernick must play closer to his 2012 form going forward.
Not just against the Redskins or the Jaguars, but against the Seahawks and the Cardinals as well.
This all comes full circle on Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, who are coming off of two consecutive wins in impressive fashion. At 5-6, the Rams are a tougher opponent than their record indicates, including a fierce pass rush and an improving defense.
If Kaepernick is to turn the corner and take this team to the playoffs once again, it starts with the Rams this weekend. The Rams will likely look to stop Gore after his 153-yard performance in Week 4, daring Kaepernick to beat him with his arm.
Until the 49ers prove otherwise, several defenses will likely enter with this strategy. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman needs to respond with better game plans and the players also need to execute.
The defense is standing strong and Aldon Smith has shaken off the rust. But as King noted, Kaepernick's play must continue to improve as the talent around him comes together.
The pieces are now in place. It's now up to the 49ers to build the foundation of another Super Bowl run.
Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For thoughts on the 49ers and the NFL, reach out on Twitter by following @smeaton49.