Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers can't afford to overlook the Bucs.
Entering Week 15, the San Francisco 49ers are in the driver's seat to secure a playoff berth. But before they start to clear their schedules for January football, they need to focus on their next opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Led by rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, the Bucs have won four of five games. They are coming off a 21-point victory over the Buffalo Bills in which running back Bobby Rainey rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown.
In other words, they're better than their 4-9 record indicates.
Below are the keys to the 49ers (9-4) winning at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
Contain Vincent Jackson
In their last three games, the 49ers have done a tremendous job of limiting big plays from their opponents. The San Francisco defense has allowed just one 30-plus-yard gain in that span.
That's a trend Vincent Jackson is looking to break.
The 6'5". 230-pound wide receiver burned the Bills for a 38-yard touchdown last week. It was his fourth consecutive game with a catch and run of 38 yards or longer.
The Bucs don't have the firepower to stay with the 49ers if their No. 1 receiver doesn't make a big impact. Safeties Donte Whitner and Eric Reid must stay home and help the San Francisco corners when Glennon targets Jackson on deep passes.
Attack All Defensive Backs Except Darrelle Revis
When the Bucs signed cornerback Darrelle Revis and former 49ers safety Dashon Goldson in the offseason, they must have believed they'd be sporting one of the best secondaries in the NFL this season.
That's not how things have played out.
Revis, Pro Football Focus' top-ranked cornerback (subscription required), has lived up to expectations, but the rest of Tampa Bay's secondary has been mediocre. Overall, the Bucs have allowed 24 touchdown passes, which is tied for the seventh-most in the NFL.
Obviously, Revis can't guard Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin at the same time. Colin Kaepernick should have full confidence going to either when defended by rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks on the outside.
In the middle of the field, safeties Mark Barron and Goldson will have their hands full with Vernon Davis.
Kaepernick likely won't need to shred the Bucs for 300-plus passing yards to secure a win. In fact, the 49ers are 8-0 when Kap exceeds 150 passing yards and 9-0 when he averages at least six yards per attempt.
He has the weapons. He just needs to exploit Tampa Bay's weaknesses and avoid throwing into coverage. The latter is especially important considering the Bucs have 10 interceptions in their last three games.
Shut Down Bobby Rainey and Bucs Running Game
When they took the Seattle Seahawks to overtime in Week 9, the Bucs rushed for 205 yards. They've rushed for at least 140 yards in three of their four wins.
Once they get the ground game going, they can be awfully dangerous.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. They're coming off an outstanding defensive performance in which they held Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 72 yards on 20 carries.
This doesn't bode well for Tampa Bay.
In the Bucs' 27-6 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Rainey was held to 63 yards on 17 carries. If the 49ers can similarly keep him in check, they should keep Tampa Bay at bay.
What's the most important key for the 49ers on Sunday?
This has letdown game written all over it for the Niners.
First, San Francisco is coming off a big win against the Seahawks. Second, the 49ers' next game will be the last regular-season game at Candlestick Park (and likely their last game there, period). Lastly, the Niners will be playing their first 1 p.m. East Coast road game of the season, which means they'll feel like they're starting the game at 10 a.m.
On Wednesday, Jim Harbaugh said at a press conference that his team won't look past Tampa Bay.
"Our guys are professionals, they know what’s at stake," he said, per 49ers.com.
We'll know early on whether the 49ers are ready to play.
Last week, Rainey scored an 80-yard touchdown on the Tampa Bay's first offensive play. It was the sixth straight game in which Tampa Bay has scored first.
If the 49ers can jump all over the Bucs in the first quarter, they should be able to cruise to their seventh double-digit victory of the season (coincidentally, the first six have come against the six teams they've played that currently have a losing record).
If not, the Bucs could hang around and steal this game in the fourth quarter like they did against the Miami Dolphins in Week 10 and the Detroit Lions in Week 12.