This past week, the San Francisco 49ers accomplished their third consecutive 10-win season for the first time since 1996-98, via senior writer Taylor Price of the team’s official website. This was a superb achievement, adding onto the already budding legacy of coach Jim Harbaugh.
From the nearby Stanford, Harbaugh and his posse pulled this team out of the depths of the NFL’s cellar, flipping it into perennial contenders.
And this year, they're at it again. In Week 16, the 49ers are gearing up for what is the last-ever football game at a place that’s been a big part of the franchise’s legacy, Candlestick Park. Over time, it’s a locale that has grown from an entertainment venue to a cherished relic.
Historically, the ‘Stick has a rich background.
The 49ers have an opportunity to say goodbye to this symbol on Monday Night Football versus the Atlanta Falcons, giving the site a proper sendoff, while reminding the 49ers faithful that this new-era team is special enough to give Levis Stadium the same type of character.
And they’re looking to start right now. As it stands, the 10-4 49ers are hot on the trail, sniffing a postseason slot and desperate to finish strong and position themselves for a title run. Although it seemed hope had been lost once or twice this season, another Super Bowl run is in their sights.
Here is everything you need to know about the 49ers from here on out, including where this team stands heading into this week’s game versus the Falcons.
|NFC West Standings|
|San Francisco 49ers||10||4||0||.714|
|St. Louis Rams||6||8||0||.429|
Heading into Week 16, the 49ers have the longest current winning streak in the NFC West, winning four in a row. The Seahawks have only locked up one. San Francisco is locked in a three-way tie for the best record in its past five games at 4-1 (Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks).
That just goes to show that San Francisco isn't the only hot team in the West heading down the stretch.
This team also has the top record within the division (4-1), which is important when it comes to any potential tiebreaker situations with the Hawks or Cards. With two winnable games left—one versus a subpar Falcons team and one versus a Cardinals team they almost always defeat—the 49ers are in good shape.
The expectation is they finish 12-4 in 2013.
|Ian Williams||DT||Ankle||Out for Season|
|Bruce Miller||FB||Scapula||Out for Season|
|49ers.com, CSN Bay Area|
On top of this list, Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley is playing at less than 100 percent right now, having rushed back to the lineup after enduring what originally appeared to be a semi-serious knee injury. He’s played well since, but letting up a sack to Adrian Clayborn last week, it’s evident that he’s not totally himself.
That’s not the only injured 49er playing on game day either.
It’s also important to note than Frank Gore (ankle), Michael Crabtree (ankle) and Ray McDonald (ankle) are key guys who were dinged up in games and haven’t completely gotten over their injuries. While they’re playing stellar ball, we saw these injuries occur, and it’s likely they’re still lingering.
Hopefully these four will continue to heal up by the end of the week without facing any setbacks.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the marquee player set to return is Mike Iupati, the team’s mauling power guard. Since Day 1, he’s been the offense’s muscle in the trenches and expects to be a real shot in the arm for this run game once he’s back in the lineup. This also brings the offense back to full-strength.
The sleeper to return is rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton, who has been a healthy scratch these past couple weeks.
He missed the body of the season with a foot fracture, which he has fully recovered from, having returned to practice and been removed from the injury report. It is believed that Patton is physically ready to play, but whether or not the 49ers activate him to the 46 on game day remains a mystery.
Mario Manningham is barely getting work as a No. 3 receiver, and fourth slot belongs to special teams ace Kassim Osgood. That being said, if Patton is finally activated after recovering from his injury, it could mean the 49ers are looking to spread it out and try new things with their offense.
What to Watch: Playoff Seeding
The NFC’s No. 1 seed is 1-5 in the Super Bowl since 2000, while the top seed has also been one-and-done four times since 2006, via Scott Kacsmar of Cold Hard Football Facts. Being the top dog isn’t always a surefire way to a Lombardi Trophy, however fulfilling or mesmerizing it may be at the time.
Just ask the 49ers, who were arguably the best regular-season team the past two years, hosting consecutive divisional games and an NFC title from 2011-12. The hot team twice ended their season. Two clubs, the Giants (9-7) and Ravens (10-6), had a combined regular-season winning percentage of .593, which is essentially the bare minimum for a playoff team.
It’s been a bit of a role reversal this year, as San Francisco is looking at a fifth or sixth slot in the playoffs, in a position to be the hot team rather than the hunted Super Bowl favorite. This could be the kind of edge it needs:
This weekend, 13 of 16 games have playoff implications, so we’ll get a better idea of where the 49ers stand. Outside of their own match with the Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers will be paying attention to two games in particular.
Top Game: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
The game to watch is Arizona at Seattle, which most directly affects the 49ers. If the Cardinals lose to the Seahawks (or the 49ers win on Monday night), San Francisco will automatically clinch a playoff spot and will only have to worry about being healthy and seeding from there on out.
However, if the Cards upset the Seahawks, that’s another story. It’s not necessarily bad. In fact, it opens the door to something that seemed like a long shot: winning the division.
Owning any tiebreaker, the 49ers will have a tiny window to take the NFC West if they tie the Seattle Seahawks at the end of the season at 12-4. For this to happen, the 49ers would also need the Seahawks to lose their last two games, which include home games versus the Cardinals and Rams.
And S.F. has to win out, which it has a good chance to do.
This works because if Seattle loses to Arizona and St. Louis and the 49ers win in Week 17, the Niners would have the same overall record as the Hawks but a better one within the division, giving them the top seed and home field again. This would take some divine intervention from the football gods, though.
The most likely scenario is the 49ers entering the postseason as the No. 5 team in the NFC. So, even if this implausible dream situation doesn’t pan out where they recapture home field, they’ll still be a sleeper candidate to run through the postseason as the most dominant bottom-seeded team.
If you’re a glass half-full kind of person, this weekend is a win-win.
San Francisco is currently slotted as the No. 2 wild-card team, neck-and-neck with the Carolina Panthers (10-4). Though they have the same record as the Panthers, the 49ers are in the sixth seed because they lost their head-to-head in Week 10, missing out on the tiebreaker advantage.
Nevertheless, they control their own destiny when it comes to moving ahead.
If they win out, the 49ers will inevitably fall into a fifth seed since New Orleans and Carolina are set to play one another this Sunday. Only one of the NFC South teams can get to 12-4 on the season and win the division, while the other would be situated in the wild card with a fifth or sixth dash in the loss column, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
That’ll put either one behind the 49ers.
Any which way, you’ll want to monitor the results of this game to see what team San Francisco may be pulling for to come from a low seed and possibly knock off the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. So both of these games carry relatively significant implications for the postseason.
What Must Improve
This season, this was a heavily trafficked section of this column, seeing as how the 49ers struggled more than we’re used to. The offense in particular was in disarray for most of the year, even when the team was winning football games. Middling performances and a perceived failure to act made it worthy of criticism.
But the 49ers have since righted the ship, and any improvements from here on out are mostly luxuries. Here is a look at what San Francisco can still do to improve:
3-4 Wide Receivers Pitching In at a Time
The 49ers were without wide receivers all season, struggling to get by, yet still came out with three-plus wide receiver sets. Now that they finally have the personnel to run these plays, they haven’t. Something like that raises questions.
Since Michael Crabtree returned to the lineup, wide receiver Mario Manningham has taken a backseat, hardly getting any snaps. On top of that, promising rookie Quinton Patton has remained on the inactive list on game day. But Manningham is most surprising.
In his first game back, he played 42 of 53 offensive snaps. Once Crabtree returned, he played 16 of 67 snaps, followed by just 14 the next week.
While they’re winning games and scoring points, it’s about broadening the offense and making it more flexible against all the defenses this league has to offer. If they’re as strong as can be in all phases, how do you stop them? You cannot overcommit to the run or the pass or even two players in particular.
To become a more complete offense, San Francisco might want to develop its spread game over these next two weeks.
How many times have you seen the seconds wind down?
Colin Kaepernick is at the helm, frantic, trying to make up for lost time—unwisely but necessarily expediting the process of reading the defense and rushing through his cadences—only before he realizes that the clock has read double zeroes for nearly three seconds already.
Delay of game. Five-yard penalty. Replay X down.
Like “clockwork” even—the irony is deeply embedded here. Now, it’s impossible for an outsider to root out the real issue here, but it seems decision-making, errant communication and perhaps the lengthy verbiage of the calls are all rolled into this perpetual flaw.
It’s likely a combination of things.
In 14 games played this season, the 49ers are currently tied for second in the league in delay-of-game penalties (eight), via NFL Penalties. They’re also just outside the top five in false-start penalties, which are interconnected, especially when the unit is out of sync and rushing to get the play off.
It’s something they’ve got to get fixed. They have to play cleaner football and allow this offense to pick up the tempo. These penalties decapitate any chance of the offense establishing a rhythm. This sort of thing even kills drives and ultimately takes would-be points off the board.
Adding Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree to the lineup has been cathartic for this offense, really helping the engine turn over once and for all. The entire unit is clicking. As one symbiotic heartbeat, it's driving the length of the field and winning on third down, which had been an issue.
But of course, not everything has improved.
Like it has for the past three seasons in this system, San Francisco is still struggling to finish drives in the red zone. Over the last three games, where they’ve had the services of Manningham and Crabtree, the 49ers have scored 16 times, with an unflattering ratio (11 field goals, five touchdowns).
This is an area that needs a drastic makeover. They need to change their thinking.
Statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise. Special thanks to Scott Kacsmar for playoff statistics.