After the San Francisco 49ers suffered back-to-back losses to the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, fans and media members alike started to wonder if the team had regressed to the point that it would miss the playoffs entirely.
The notion was certainly plausible based on the way the Arizona Cardinals were playing at the time. But it’s a good thing the NFL season doesn't end after 10 regular-season games, because a lot can happen over the course of the final six contests.
Since head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. were staring down two straight losses and a 6-4 record, they have rattled off four wins in a row. Furthermore, the Niners have hit their stride on both sides of the ball.
Greg Roman’s offense is averaging 334 yards per contest amidst the team’s winning streak, while Vic Fangio’s defense is only allowing 237 yards per game. Without a doubt, San Francisco has reestablished itself as a force to be reckoned with.
There isn’t a team in the NFC that wants to face the 49ers heading into the playoffs.
A lot of the credit has to go to the coaching staff for making phenomenal midseason adjustments, but has anyone played better than quarterback Colin Kaepernick since Week 12? Aside from silencing his early-season critics, he has put together the best four-game stretch of his career.
In wins over the Washington Redskins, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he has amassed 888 yards passing, seven touchdowns through the air, one measly interception and a quarterback rating of 105.6.
From a statistical standpoint, there isn’t much more the third-year signal-caller could have done.
Yet one thing has been more impressive than his near-perfect numbers: Kaepernick’s decision-making skills have been off the charts with Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Crabtree back in the starting lineup.
Prior to Crabtree’s return, it was evident Kaepernick was forcing a higher percentage of his throws into tighter windows. Why? Because San Francisco’s offense lacked consistent receiving options outside of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.
Kap’s inconsistent play through the first 10 games of the season had more to do with the personnel around him than anything.
Taking that into consideration, one could argue that he has been the 49ers’ saving grace.
However, at the same time, you can’t take anything away from San Francisco’s vaunted defense. In addition to holding opposing offenses to 237 yards per game, the Niners’ pass rush has taken a huge leap forward thanks in large part to outside linebacker Aldon Smith.
In Smith’s absence, the 49ers defense was averaging 1.4 quarterback sacks and 3.4 quarterback hits per game. Since his return, the Niners have averaged 2.5 quarterback sacks and 2.6 quarterback hits. Yes, the quarterback hit numbers are still down, but overall the number of quarterback pressures has increased.
Even though one additional sack per game may not seem like much, it has proven to be beneficial. Garnering an extra sack a game could be the difference between an offensive drive ending in a punt or with points on the board.
With heaps of praise being passed around, it would be naive to bypass the 49ers secondary. It has played a huge role in San Francisco’s success as well. Through the team’s winning streak, the Niners have surrendered 149 yards per contest through the air while tallying one interception per week.
All in all, it’s apparent San Francisco has become one of the most well-balanced teams in the league—at just the right time.
Teams often peak early on in the season and level out, but that hasn’t been the case for the 49ers. They did the opposite. They battled through key injuries at various positions and found a way to put their best foot forward down the home stretch.
With two regular-season games left to play, the Niners still have a couple of tough matchups in front of them that will test their resolve, but that’s OK. Great teams find a way to overcome adverse situations and play their best football heading into January.