The road to the playoffs for the San Francisco 49ers will not be the express lane it was the past two years, but rather an uphill detour through a winding canyon side. There might even be a hailstorm in effect. But the Niners will have to brave the conditions as they have all season.
Injuries and an identity crisis have largely contributed to this being one of the rockier campaigns under the new regime.
Losing has been more common, the team is ranked lower in several statistical categories and they haven’t routed any winning teams outside the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers haven’t proven themselves when presented the opportunity, and they’ve been very unlucky at times. Overall, the ball just clearly hasn’t bounced their way like it had the past two years.
And worst of all, they’ve been jumped in the division.
The Seahawks are no longer the ragamuffins of the NFC West, or even the league for that matter. Four years into the Pete Carroll era—and second with phenom QB Russell Wilson—and they’ve made a relatively concrete argument for why they are the best team in the league.
In essence, they have no weaknesses.
Everything is clicking for Seattle right now, and it all comes back to the quarterback, who might be an MVP candidate. On top of his individual performances, Wilson now has a home record of 14-0 at CenturyLink Field and has tied an NFL record for second-year quarterbacks with 22 regular-season wins, via Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com.
In those games, he’s averaged 204 yards passing, has a TD-INT ratio of 29-6 and a QB rating of 119.2, per NFL Stats.
Behind the shield of No. 3, the Seahawks have taken control of the division, they’ve now taken control of the conference and they’re on track to bring home the hardware proving they’re America’s best football team in 2013. Right now, the 49ers are in a trail position, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.
Can they do enough to make a late-season run and once again challenge for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl?
Here is a clearer picture of how San Francisco’s road to the postseason looks, as well as what will be waiting for them if and when they arrive.
The Road to Glory
|NFC West Division Standings|
|San Francisco 49ers||8||4||0||.667|
|St. Louis Rams||5||7||0||.417|
|NFL.com (*Clinched playoffs)|
The ‘Hawks became the first team to lock up a playoff berth in 2013, throttling the New Orleans Saints in front of the whole nation this past week. It was a total clinic. As the early bird, Seattle can even afford to go 2-2 over its last four games and still finish with the No. 1 seed in the NFC, per ESPN.
So, they’re very much in the driver’s seat.
Subsequently, Harbaugh’s Niners are now three games behind their division rival and one behind the Saints and Panthers. It also hurts that they lost in Week 2 to Seattle and then twice more after the bye week to the NFC’s juggernauts in New Orleans and Carolina.
The 49ers will not have the benefit of a tiebreaker if either team slips up.
All told, they’re actually closer to third in the NFC West than they are first, at risk of being jumped by the Arizona Cardinals. It’s still a very tight race, which makes the final four games of the season must-wins across the board.
And while the last stretch isn’t the worst they could’ve seen, the 49ers could feasibly lose two or three of these:
Where: Candlestick Park, San Francisco
When: Week 14, 4:25 p.m. ET
Last 5: 5-0
These two teams loathe one another with every fiber of their being, and they’ve got the physical prowess and bravado to back it up. Whatever the outcome, this game will be as hard-hitting and chippy as any this season, as it is the official stamp of the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry.
As for the series, the 49ers have lost two straight against the Hawks, and Colin Kaepernick is winless versus them in his career as a starter—so a win would signify a breakthrough. Winning this game is the biggest statement they can make to the rest of the NFL, even though playoff implications are marginal.
It’s about confidence and getting hot.
Seattle is so incredibly dominant and well-rounded; it’s difficult to knock them off their game. The 49ers, as reigning NFC champs, need to begin to restate their authority and prove that they are right there with the Seahawks. So, a lot of this is about pride and leveling the playing field.
Momentum in the rivalry has also been subject to a noticeable shift, and it’s now clearly on San Francisco to respond.
Furthermore, if the 49ers can’t beat them at home at the ‘Stick, how could they possibly expect to trek up to Seattle and win if given the opportunity?
Prediction: 28-20, Seahawks
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
When: Week 15, 1 p.m. ET
Last 5: 3-2
Sure, the Bucs started 0-8 but have since won three of their last four games, having officially moved forward into the Mike Glennon era. It’s been cathartic for the team—at least in the short term—so they can’t be overlooked. This is a team that you really can’t gauge just by looking at their record.
Glennon, a rookie third-round pick, has had an average passer rating of 137.9 in his past two victories over Detroit and Atlanta; one of the teams being a playoff contender. Fortunately for the 49ers, there is no running game to speak of, which could make this an easy day of suffocating a one-dimensional offense.
Though, the 49ers will also have to beware the defensive play from the front seven and a few prize players on the back end. Tampa Bay can stop the run, take away receiving options and create a physical presence on the deep part of the field. This won’t exactly be a walk in the park for the San Francisco offense.
Scariest of all, Lavonte David is currently the NFL’s top run-stuffing linebacker, racking up 41 stops, via Pro Football Focus.
When teams have been able to take away Frank Gore and the 49ers running game, they’ve been able to pull out wins. It is the most commonly deployed formula for defenses game-planning against this team. The Bucs have the ammo to get it done and they’ll be hosting, which makes this game a toss-up.
Prediction: 31-10, 49ers
Where: Candlestick Park, San Francisco
When: Week 16, 8:40 p.m. ET
Last 5: 1-4
Not quite the match the schedule maker thought it’d be when it was scripted in for one of the NFL’s last prime-time games of 2013. Truth be told, Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons have experienced some fall from grace since hosting the NFC title game a year ago.
Without Julio Jones on the perimeter, who is out with a season-ending foot injury—and saddled with a defense that takes a weekly shellacking—the Falcons have found wins are hard to come by. So, while Ryan and Co. may have revenge on their minds for last year’s elimination, they don’t have what it takes to pull off the upset.
And not only is this the easiest matchup San Francisco has left on the schedule, but the 49ers will be getting fully healthy by this time.
Prediction: 35-6, 49ers
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale
When: Week 17, 4:25 p.m. ET
Last 5: 4-1
Whether they take it one game at a time or not, the 49ers can feel free to circle this as the most imperative matchup left, seeing as how it pertains to the postseason. Outside the rivalry itself and exciting in-game matchups, this projects to be an implication-filled showdown, especially if the Cards continue to win games (they’ve got the Rams, Titans and Seahawks beforehand).
The last time these two teams saw each other, the Cards put up a good defensive effort early, but offensively, they could not move the ball on San Francisco. That's typically the story. The defense holds tight but a lot of short-lived drives by the offense begin to take effect.
Then, what it eventually comes down to is when that pipe that is the secondary bursts, and the defense as a whole begins to take on water.
In Week 6 this season, it was 49ers tight end Vernon Davis who broke loose for 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The time before that, it was Michael Crabtree dominating the field for 172 yards and two touchdowns. Both were career highs. Bottom line, this Arizona secondary cannot contain San Francisco's passing attack.
They have issues protecting the quarterback as well.
Prediction: 28-13, 49ers
If the 49ers retain their spot in the tourney, this will be Jim Harbaugh’s first time taking his team to the postseason this way, meaning a road schedule and an extra game in the Wild Card Round. They hosted two divisional games and an NFC Championship from 2011-12, with only one non-Super Bowl road playoff game.
They won’t have that luxury this time around.
The 49ers currently hold the No. 6 seed in the NFC, nestled behind Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. It’s the last slot in the conference. Meanwhile, the Eagles (7-5), Cardinals (7-5), Bears (6-6) and Packers (5-6-1) are also all still in the hunt, with Arizona being the team most directly threatening San Francisco.
So, while the 49ers battle to stay in it, the Seahawks can cruise, needing just one win to clinch home-field advantage over the Saints/Panthers.
If 49ers lock in a spot, they would have to win at Dallas or Philadelphia or Detroit, at New Orleans then at Seattle to return to the Super Bowl, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Yet another scenario he presented is San Francisco playing at Seattle, then at New Orleans or Carolina (all teams the 49ers lost to in 2013).
However you slice it, the road to Super Bowl XLVIII goes through Seattle.
It couldn’t be more appropriate that the loudest stadium in the nation resides in a city that gave us some of the best grunge and screaming rock bands of the '90s. Seattle’s 12th man has carried on that wailing legacy, getting cranked and dismantling the game flow of the NFL’s best offenses.
Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are just a couple of elites to have felt the effects.
On Monday night’s beatdown on Drew Brees and the Saints, 68,387 voices helped the arena reach a decibel level of 137.6, which set a new Guinness World Record for loudest crowd roar, via the team’s official Twitter.
Brees and head coach Sean Payton, who have fielded a record-setting offense for most of their tenure together, were paralyzed by the noise level.
It's no wonder that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is 0-2 all-time versus this Seahawks team, tossing only one touchdown to four interceptions in two visits to CenturyLink Field. In fact, in his 19 career starts, Kap’s two worst passer ratings have come at that pestering stadium.
As far as where we stand, not where you'd like to be, but we're in a position where we control our own destiny. Sure, we'd love to be 12-0 right now. But, certainly our fate is in our hands. And, heading into the last four games of the season, it's good to remember that. — 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, during a press conference with the media.
No longer the favorites, San Francisco must proceed with the underdog mentality, where it's them against the world. And in turn, it could bring this unit closer together and provide them with that intangible edge that gives them a boost in tight situations, game to game.
Under Jim Harbaugh, this ballclub has played its best football when they’ve been backed into a corner. Dating back to the coach’s inaugural season in 2011, up until now, the 49ers have won a lot of games they weren’t expected to.
They’re fighters, and this defense alone gives them a chance every time they step on the field. When they know they cannot afford any mistakes, that’s when you see each and every player clawing and scratching, finishing assignments and playing cleaner from a technique standpoint.
So if they have more reason to feel hungry, rather than entitled, it could be good for the entire team’s energy.
But still, it doesn’t change the fact that there is no margin for error. As coach Harbaugh said, this isn’t the position they wanted to be in. All they can hope for now is that the things that they were counting on at the end of the season finally come to fruition and help provide a boost.
Getting healthier now, there is a surge of confidence traveling up the backbone of this team most others won’t account for. San Francisco feels good to have their brothers back in the lineup; the chemistry is back and they know what these late additions are capable of on the field.
They have the talent to make a run, but how far they go depends on how this team responds mentally.