Three years after coach Jim Harbaugh came in from Stanford and waved his magic wand over this organization, making the San Francisco 49ers a perennial contender again, they are now back to being behind the eight-ball and carrying out the proverbial underdog role.
This is not such a bad thing, seeing as how the 49ers thrive with the mentality, playing arguably their best football in the resurgent 2011 campaign.
Nobody expected anything from them that year. This time, it isn't because they aren't capable—it is because their division rival has cast a shadow so large, they've quickly become the forgotten stepchild of the NFC. In a new year, the fact that they still wear the conference crown makes no never mind to any of the competing teams or analysts picking favorites in 2013.
So, once again, if they choose to use it positively, the edge the 49ers have is that they've got something to prove.
And wouldn't you know it, but opportunity comes knocking this Sunday in Week 14, when their arch nemesis, the Seattle Seahawks, come strolling into town with their chests puffed out. Before the season began, this one was already set to be a knock-down, drag-out fight in the most literal sense, but now there's playoff implications involved.
Will the 49ers rise to the moment on the biggest stage they've faced all season, or will they wilt and slowly fade deeper into that shadow they've struggled to emerge from?
As we prepare for the epic finale of the regular season, here is everything you must know about San Francisco from here on out.
|NFC West Division Standings|
|San Francisco 49ers||8||4||0||.667|
|St. Louis Rams||5||7||0||.417|
The Seattle Seahawks became the first team to clinch a berth in the 2013 playoffs, winning big over the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football. Now sporting the single best record in pro football, they need just one more win to lock up home-field advantage over the Saints and Panthers.
The ‘Hawks can even go 2-2 over their last four games and still finish with the No. 1 seed in the conference, per ESPN.
With those being the circumstances, San Francisco is now three games behind their most heated division rival, having been handed three of their four losses this season by the Seahawks, Saints and Panthers. Unlike the past two years, they cannot expect to be one of the top seeds in 2013.
Fortunately, they’ve won back-to-back games and are just now beginning to sniff double-digit wins for the third straight year.
As it stands, the 49ers remain the No. 6 seed in the NFC, right behind the Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. They can still put forth a strong final four games of the regular season—against Seattle, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Arizona—and do their best to situate themselves for the postseason.
However it pans out, though, it’ll be tough sledding.
Even if they finish on a high note and get into the tournament, they’ll have arguably the toughest road imaginable. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 49ers will likely have to win at Seattle, then at New Orleans or Carolina to advance to the Super Bowl this year.
Right now, they are maybe the fifth-best team in the league, and perhaps neck-and-neck for the third-best team in the NFC. With injuries and the systematic growing pains being a factor this year, San Francisco has to be the team that comes together and hits its stride at just the right time.
|49ers Injury Report|
|Quinton Patton||WR||Foot||1-2 Weeks|
|49ers.com, CSN Bay Area|
On Sunday, defensive tackle Ray McDonald and wideout Michael Crabtree returned to the starting lineup, which immediately kick-started the passing game and made a hulking front seven even better. Beyond their own statistical output, their presence clearly opened things up for players around them.
Unfortunately, the 49ers continued to face setbacks in the injury department:
As of Sunday, Joe Staley and Mike Iupati now both have MCL sprains and could miss a couple more weeks apiece.
Staley was having his best season to date, as the seven-year pro was Pro Football Focus’ No. 1-ranked tackle through 12 weeks. This is a major setback because not only he is a Pro Bowler, but Staley has also been the cornerstone of the line, starting 49 straight games the past three seasons, including the playoffs.
He has been the one constant up front dating back to 2007.
So, regardless of the caliber player he is, not having one of the key links in the offensive line gunks up the entire functionality of the unit. It was evident right away when the Niners let up four sacks versus a St. Louis Rams defensive front that was creating pressure from its defensive ends and defensive tackles.
Twenty-three-year-old backup lineman Joe Looney had been inserted into the lineup at right guard, as Alex Boone switched over to the tackle spot. Even though the offense had no run presence, the second-year interior lineman held up okay and at least didn't allow any quarterback pressures.
But the offensive line itself was lifeless.
The team has also been without Iupati. The big, mauling guard was voted to his first Pro Bowl last season and was having another tremendous year to follow it up, but is actually said to have the worse of the two injuries now, per 49ers reporter Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
On the bright side, both Staley and Iupati are set to return at some point, as their injuries are not season ending.
Moreover, the 49ers are looking to get help from cornerback Tarell Brown once he returns from his rib injury and Quinton Patton once he’s back from his foot injury sustained early in the season. These two could greatly enhance the depth of their respective positional groups, which have been dinged up for much of the season.
What Must Improve
This has been a perpetual issue throughout the season, particularly when it comes to spreading the ball around in the air. They’ve got loads of star power, but offensively, they could benefit from really exploring the depth of their skill players at running back, tight end and wide receiver.
Players like Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Vance McDonald and Quinton Patton were all highly touted draft picks from 2011-13 and will hardly have any attention on them with this corps of weapons around them.
If the 49ers can work in some of the lesser-known players, it’ll help fill this offense out and make it much harder to defend overall.
Increase Corey Lemonier’s Snaps
Since 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith returned to his edge spot opposite Ahmad Brooks, there has been no room for Corey Lemonier—and rightfully so. Smith and Brooks have been back in a rhythm, playing as well as a tandem as we’ve seen in two years starting together.
Nevertheless, Lemonier really flashed his ability as a pass-rusher when he was called upon.
Since the 49ers routinely put a choke hold on the opposing team’s run game, they are presented with a lot of obvious passing downs, whether they are 3rd-and-longs or when the team has given up on rushing the ball altogether. When those opportunities present themselves, they need to take advantage.
Occasionally from the nickel and dime packages that feature four down linemen, it wouldn’t hurt to take out one of the extra defensive tackles and place three rush linebackers around Justin Smith.
Collectively, the pass-rush ability of Smith, Brooks and Lemonier provides the 49ers with favorable matchups in the trenches. They’ll also benefit from Justin Smith absorbing double-teams. That being the case, any one of these guys can get the better of their one-on-one and bag the quarterback.
This “Gold Rush” package could add another wrinkle to a top-tier defense that relies heavily on the production of its front seven.
Explore More Three-WR Sets
Anquan Boldin. Michael Crabtree. Mario Manningham.
This is unlike any corps of receivers the 49ers have had in three seasons under Jim Harbaugh, especially this late in the season. The past two years, it seemed like the only position group where this team was actually understaffed, while they saw the league’s best in New Orleans, New York, Green Bay and Atlanta.
In 2011, Braylon Edwards and Josh Morgan were hurt and eventually let go. The next year, Randy Moss didn’t produce at all like a No. 2 and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins was a flop that is no longer in town. Mario Manningham also suffered a double ligament tear in December, just before the playoffs.
All the while, Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn Jr., Joe Hastings and Brett Swain were never real threats during those two runs.
Looking back on it now, Michael Crabtree was essentially all alone out there representing the corps of wide receivers. Had it not been for his partner in crime, tight end Vernon Davis, the 49ers would have been much, much worse when it came to attacking teams in the air.
Now, with a healthy Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham around No. 15, the Niners can spread teams out and do new things offensively. Not to mention, rookie wideout Quinton Patton will be returning the lineup behind those three, and there were many that had a second-round grade on him.
They can put the ball into orbit, picking and choosing their matchups.
Crabtree, Boldin, Manningham and Patton are each so talented in their own right, it’ll be like stealing. And this is what the high-powered offenses in the playoffs do—their quarterbacks survey the field and find the open man. For that reason, the Niners need to get these four rolling down the stretch.
And ultimately, the 49ers will be able to run out of this, providing lighter boxes for Frank Gore and Co.