NFL Playoff Scenarios: 10 Ways the San Francisco 49ers Can Win the NFC West
Not one meaningful game have the 49ers won this year. You know the kind, the games that show what your team is made of, how much heart it has, how much desire and how well the players pull together when they have to.
Despite that fact, the team still has a chance to make the playoffs. The 49ers not only have a chance, they have a pretty decent chance. If they beat the Rams Sunday and the Seahawks lose just one of their last two games, the 49ers need only to beat the Arizona Cardinals on the last day of the regular season, at home, to be crowned NFC Weak…er…West champions.
Now the title of this article may be just a bit misleading, but I am not going to explain every remote way the team can get into the playoffs. They have to win...period.
This puts fans in quite a quandary. Going to the playoffs is great, but does the team really want to be the first team to make the playoffs (in a non-strike-shortened season) with a losing record?
To further add insult to injury, especially to the teams that have winning records and will not make the playoffs, the 49ers would host the Wild Card game.
A strange, crazy NFL season to be sure.
But with not being able to win a meaningful game, can we really expect the team to beat the Rams on the road?
The team can’t expect to make the playoffs unless they correct the things that have been hindering them all year.
So the question is how does the team make the playoffs?
They Must Form An Identity
How would you describe this team?
Not a pretty picture is it?
The game in San Diego was a microcosm of the season. One step forward and two steps back.
Just when you thought Alex Smith might put two good games together, he falls apart.
Just when you thought the offensive line was starting to gel, they give up five sacks.
Just when you thought Nate Clements was playing at a high level, he gets scorched.
The team seems to get up for NFC West opponents, but this game is on the road. The team has to overcome its road troubles, rise up, and play together as a unit on both offense and defense.
Choose A Quarterback
This team has enough troubles without having a quarterback controversy, but that is just what they have.
How many teams have made the playoffs without an established quarterback?
If Troy Smith was benched because he doesn’t have command of the entire playbook, how does he become the better option now?
If you don’t know who is starting, then who gets the majority of snaps in practice?
At this point, I would settle for a quarterback-by-committee approach. Troy could come in on early downs and stretch the field, and Alex could come in on third and long and throw it short or throw it away.
All kidding aside, this issue needs to get resolved. I am not sure keeping the Rams guessing on which Smith is going to start is much of a strategic move at this point.
Protect The Quarterback
This is a tired and old idea, but still a good one.
Troy Smith has shown the ability to extend some plays by rolling out, but teams are on to that now. He also has, at times, hung on to the ball too long.
Alex is big and athletic, but sometimes his size makes him a bigger target. He, on the other hand, sometimes doesn’t hang on to the ball long enough.
At any rate, whichever Smith starts, the offensive line has to step up and get it done. There simply isn’t any more time for “growing pains."
Run The Ball
It seems as if the team can’t run the ball early, they give up on it and then put the game into the hands of the quarterback. Does anybody remember the first Seattle game? That was the key to their game plan, putting the game in Alex Smith’s hands.
Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon can both run the ball effectively if given enough opportunity.
In addition, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson needs to get a little more creative when it comes to running the ball.
Now where have we heard that before?
The Secondary Has to Step It Up
Clements is great at the line, but the better receivers in the league have battered him on both sides (see Vincent Jackson).
But it isn’t just Clements. Everyone in the 49ers secondary has been scorched this year.
The Rams seem to keep losing receivers, but Bradford keeps finding guys that can catch the ball.
It would seem like the advantage would be with the 49ers, but judging from the last time the team played the Rams, they could be in for a long day unless they get their coverages set and communication is at a premium.
Get Some Pressure on Bradford (and Whoever Is Quarterbacking Arizona in Week 17)
I know some of these seem redundant, you know…saying the same thing over and over again…repeating yourself, but there comes a time when you have to ask is it the players or is it the scheme?
Perhaps it is a bit of both.
Third downs have haunted this team all year (in fact, all of last year as well). On critical third downs, the defense has to make some stops. Whether that is sending Goldson or Clements in on a blitz or bringing the house, Manusky has to make something happen.
There is no more time to play it safe. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Well, at least it is supposed to work like that.
Get The Ball to the Playmakers
Michael Crabtree has been a bit of a disappointment so far this year, but he has shown signs he might be ready to break out. He has good hands, but his route running really needs some polish.
Josh Morgan, on the other hand, has been a mild surprise. We all knew he could make some plays, but in recent games he has shown the ability to go over the middle and take the big hit while hanging onto the ball.
Vernon Davis hasn't had the kind of year he had last year, but teams are keying on him. That should open up more opportunities for the other guys, including Delanie Walker, when the team uses two tight ends.
Ted Ginn at the very least should be used to stretch the field.
But again, it all depends on which quarterback is starting. Troy Smith seems to spread it around a bit more (at least when he was winning) and Alex seems to be heavily reliant upon Davis and, of course, Frank Gore, who is out for the season.
In either case, the more the team can spread it around, the more you keep the opposing team’s defense honest.
Put It All Together
There have been games where the team kept penalties to a minimum.
There have been games where the team has had multiple takeaways.
There have been games where the team was able to protect the quarterback.
There have been games where the team has not committed a turnover.
There haven’t been many, but there have been a few.
Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to do all of those things in one game.
Now is the time to do just that.
The one thing you would expect a Mike Singletary coached team to have is discipline. It simply blows my mind when I think of all the mistakes, both penalties and turnovers, this team has made.
Sure you can blame a lot of them on the rookies, but from the Nate Clements fumble against Atlanta to the Justin Smith ejection in San Diego, there have just been too many miscues across the board...
Or Get Out
Some say that mistakes and miscues are a sign of poor coaching.
If that is the case, then the 49ers will have to address it in the offseason.
They still will have a shot at the NFC West. It's just that they may have to wait until 2011.