Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers are on the verge of their third postseason run in a row.
Heading into the 2013 season, the San Francisco 49ers were viewed by many as one of the favorites to compete in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Take a look at what the experts from NFL.com said back on August 30.
A lot has taken place for the 49ers over their 2013 campaign. Following a tremendous performance in Week 1 over the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco endured a two-game losing streak before rolling off five wins in a row.
Then, the 49ers fell victim to another two-game losing streak, prompting thoughts that this team's playoff chances were in jeopardy.
This author broke down those chances following Week 10 here.
The offense was struggling. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had not developed like most had hoped. There were questions surrounding the play-calling on offense. Health of some of the players was an issue.
Fortunately for their fans, the 49ers have turned plenty of things around in recent weeks.
The 49ers enter their Week 17 matchup on Monday Night Football against the Atlanta Falcons with a 10-4 record and still have an outside chance of winning the NFC West and possibly even a first-round bye in the playoffs.
While nothing in the NFL is guaranteed, San Francisco is starting to play like the team they were expected to be at the outset of the season. They are hitting their stride at the right time and therefore need to be considered favorites to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Here are five reasons why.
Seattle's Week 16 loss to Arizona has shaken up the outlook in the NFC West.
It does not seem that long ago that the prospects for an NFC crown would go through Seattle.
What a difference a week makes.
It is safe to surmise that no team wishes to play up at CenturyLink Field in Seattle during the postseason.
The 49ers are no different, especially considering how poorly they have played in each of their last two visits. Yet Arizona's Week 16 win keeps San Francisco's hopes alive for a division crown and even a first-round bye.
Here is the scenario.
If the 49ers are able to defeat both Atlanta in Week 16 and the Cardinals on the road in Week 17, San Francisco would finish with a 12-4 record. Seattle would also have to lose to the visiting St. Louis Rams in Week 17, which is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
Larry Stone of The Seattle Times makes an argument that the Seahawks are indeed vulnerable at home which could carry significant implications in the final week of the regular season.
Combine that with a 7-8 Rams team that has reeled off two victories in a row—including a 27-16 win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 15—and Seattle's seemingly unbreakable hold on the first seed seems shakier. The Rams would like nothing more than to come into Seattle and play spoiler. Their 13th-ranked defense in points allowed at least makes it plausible.
San Francisco would obviously love to see an upset here.
If the 49ers and Seahawks each finished the season with 12-4 records, the 49ers would get the tiebreaker based on divisional records.
Suddenly, both the division and home-field advantage in the playoffs would shift to San Francisco's favor.
If a playoff matchup with the Seahawks eventually proves to be the toughest challenge San Francisco faces this postseason, playing that game at Candlestick would loom large.
That could be one of the biggest components in a San Francisco championship run.
Baltimore was a No. 4 seed when they beat the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
The previous slide covered the ways by which San Francisco could earn the NFC division crown and a potential first-round bye.
Yet a number of things would have to take place for that scenario to happen.
From a more realistic approach, the 49ers will probably finish the regular season in a wild-card spot—a spot San Francisco currently holds if the season ended today.
While home-field advantage and first-round byes are of great benefit, one cannot overlook the fact that the last three teams to win Super Bowls have been teams slotted in seeds four through six.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News breaks this down further:
[The] 49ers were the NFC's No. 2 seed in the past two postseasons and were eliminated by lower-seeded teams that won the Super Bowl with hotter quarterbacks, healthier lineups and poorer records. Byes and home-field advantage didn't matter much. Getting hot and healthy at the right time meant everything. One odd stat: AFC and NFC No. 1 seeds are 3-6 in the previous three postseasons, and none has won the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the past three titles have been captured by a 6 (Green Bay three years ago) and two 4s (the New York Giants two years ago and Baltimore last year).
What Kawakami points out is simple—being a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed means nothing in the postseason aside from being able to mostly play in front of home crowds.
Teams with inferior records have been able to make their way to Super Bowl championships regardless of byes and home-field advantage. Instead of focusing on the importance of top seeds, teams that are hitting their strides late in the season are in much better shape to make a push.
San Francisco falls into that category which is soon to be described.
Yes, the 49ers would have to play more games as a wild card which opens up more possibilities for playoff elimination. Yes, road games in the postseason are among the toughest any team has to endure.
But history shows that the current 49ers' situation may actually play into their favor.
The 49ers defense has been vital to their 2013 success.
The previous slide suggested how San Francisco is hitting its stride at the right time.
Save that thought for a moment. First, let us examine the 49ers defense.
Last season, leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, San Francisco's defense revealed a number of cracks, especially during the playoffs.
Defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald—who had played nearly every snap of the regular season when healthy—were nursing both injury and fatigue at this same point last year. Linebacker Aldon Smith had also slowed from his once-torrid sack pace.
In addition, San Francisco's secondary was prone to giving up big plays—something that was revealed in both the NFC Championship Game and in the Super Bowl. In 2012, the 49ers' pass defense ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed with 3,203 in the regular season. This year, they rank second with 2,796 through 14 games.
San Francisco's defense also has allowed only 110 points over the last eight games—the fewest in the league over that time span.
It is safe to say that the 49ers defense is hot.
Combine that with a healthy and effective pass rush, and moving the ball through the air will be a difficult thing for teams to do against the 49ers in the playoffs.
It also helps to have the fourth-best rushing defense in the league.
According to San Francisco's injury report, the 49ers are almost fully healthy at every defensive position, which bodes well for their postseason prospects.
Granted, the 49ers still have two regular-season games left and injuries may still happen, but the fact that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has his defense playing healthy and at a high level is a great indication of what may come.
If the phrase "defense wins championships" holds true, the 49ers are in much better shape to contend for a Super Bowl than they were last season.
Michael Crabtree's return could not have come a moment too soon.
After San Francisco's 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 10, it would have seemed foolish to state that the 49ers' offense would be considered a reason behind a postseason push.
For a sizable portion of this season, San Francisco's offense was best described perhaps by one word—inept.
The finger was pointed in plenty of directions. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman's play-calling was suspect. Colin Kaepernick was struggling. There was no receiving depth.
A lot of that discussion has simmered down as of late.
Since that Week 10 loss, the 49ers have averaged 24.4 points per game as well as an average of 306.4 total yards.
Those may not be the flashiest numbers in the NFL, especially when one considers the offensive prowess of teams like the Denver Broncos or the Philadelphia Eagles, but the 49ers do not need to have a stat-ridden offense to be effective.
Combined with their defense, San Francisco's offense needs to be good...not great or stellar, just good.
They have found that mark.
Getting wide receiver Michael Crabtree back in Week 12 after his Achilles injury was a huge plus for this unit. Now, Kaepernick has three veteran wideouts—Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham—at his disposal as well as the deep-threat services of tight end Vernon Davis.
Boldin and Crabtree are now competing for the No. 1 receiver designation—a competition that certainly benefits San Francisco.
Kaepernick described this relationship via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
I feel like the competition between them is something that’s going to raise not just their play but everybody’s, from Vernon’s to Vance [McDonald's] to Mario’s to Quinton [Patton's]. The competition they have as far as, ‘When I catch the ball I’m trying to score.’ I mean, they have times in practice where they’re, ‘Hey, throw me the ball. I’m going to do this.’ That’s something you love to see as an offensive player. They’re players that challenge each other in a good way, in that ‘I want to see if I can make a better play than you.’
Add running back Frank Gore to the mix, and suddenly the 49ers offense is looking more like the unit it was intended to be entering the season.
(Bucky Brooks of NFL.com describes the recent offensive resurgence here.)
The main reason for the uptick in offense is that Kaepernick has been playing more consistently. Over his last four games, he has thrown seven touchdowns against one interception and has 114 yards on 26 carries.
Forget all the talk about the 49ers offense not being able to get the job done—at least for now.
They are doing what they need to do, and they are clicking at the right moment.
The 49ers are hitting their stride at precisely the right moment.
It may be an overused statement, but getting hot at the right time can be the difference between a Super Bowl champion and playoff elimination.
There have been plenty of NFL teams this season that have fallen to the latter—look no further than the Detroit Lions as an example.
In contrast, the 49ers are a team that is gelling in the right way and at the right time.
For the most part, this team is fully healthy. It is also deep. That will play a vital factor.
More importantly however, San Francisco is looking more like the team that most envisioned they would be at the start of the 2013 season.
As previously stated by Tim Kawakami, the most important factor in winning a Super Bowl is not the seeding or having home-field advantage, it is getting into the postseason on a hot streak and carrying that trend into the last game of the season.
Frank Gore commented by this via Kawakami:
I think it's all timing. I think we're hitting the right spot at the right time. Crab [is] getting better. Vernon, Anquan [is] doing a great job. Me, O-line, Kap running and throwing. We just want to get in the tournament. When you look at it, the last two years a [team in the Wild-Card Round] won the Super Bowl. We just want to get in there and do what we do.
For the 49ers, the timing could not be any better.
In addition to health and depth, getting all of their units—offense, defense and special teams—playing at high levels means that nobody will want to face them in the postseason.
Tyson Langland of Bleacher Report describes this further here.
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.
That statement falls in line with what almost every NFL championship team does late in the season. San Francisco is following that same blueprint.
There is plenty of football left to be played and San Francisco's prospects for the postseason are not yet guaranteed. As previously noted, nothing in the NFL is.
Yet if a team would like to have its way, one could argue little against the scenario the 49ers currently find themselves in.
The situation is there for the 49ers to enter the playoffs—possibly as a division winner or likely as a Wild Card. San Francisco could probably care less where they get in. They just want to be there.
Once they are in the playoffs, and the previously listed reasons come to forefront, the 49ers are a team that has a good a shot as any to claim their sixth Super Bowl title.
The opportunity is there. The 49ers just need to seize it.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.