Every season has a defining moment, and for a team like the San Francisco 49ers, that moment does not come in those joyous, memorable final seconds in their thrilling comeback win last week in Philadelphia.
No, a defining moment is one where a team comes off a critical win or loss and then confirms to itself its abilities and resourcefulness. Looking over the last three Super Bowl champions it is possible to see where crucial games rose on the schedule for Pittsburgh (2008) and Green Bay (’10).
It wasn’t that they won the big game. More importantly, it’s that they kept the momentum and kept on winning. Consider:
Steelers, November 2008. Their record is 6-2. They’re in control of the AFC North, but Indianapolis came in for a crucial showdown. At stake was the right to lay claim as the conference’s best. Indy won 24-20, but the Steelers bounced back the next week with a scrappy 11-10 win over San Diego. That win invigorated the team, which went on to win nine of its last 10 games, capped by the Super Bowl victory over Arizona.
Green Bay, November 2010. They lost three of four, the only win over an overmatched San Francisco team. After a 7-3 loss to the Lions and then a 31-27 setback to the Patriots, they were in danger of missing the playoffs.
A 45-17 win over the Giants helped, but it was the 10-3 win over the Bears in the final week that cemented their place in the playoffs. More importantly, it was the game in which they proved to themselves they had what it took to win any game any way.
You could argue that the 2009 Saints were an exception to the rule. Opening the season with 13 straight wins, the league’s best offense was in high gear. A closer look, however, revealed that four of their last six wins in getting to 13-0 came by five points or less. The Saints were vulnerable, and Dallas, Tampa and Carolina proved it by beating them successively to end the season.
If anyone needed a clutch win, it was the Saints, and they got it with a 45-14 first-round playoff victory over the Cardinals. But the Saints still needed Brett Favre to bonehead his team’s chances during the NFC Championship game, sending the Saints to the Super Bowl.
If the 49ers are to continue their transformation from doormat to playoff-caliber team, a win over the visiting 3-1 Buccaneers on Sunday is the place to do it. Here are five reasons why San Francisco will win.
(Note: all quotes courtesy of transcripts provided by 49er PR department.)
It’s a chance to avenge last year’s 21-0 embarrassment of a loss last year to the Bucs, and it’s a chance to prove they are a much better team.
After holding San Francisco to a home-record low of 189 yards in total offense and just 11 first downs, the Bucs left with a 7-3 record. It was a definite low point of the 49ers' season.
When asked if he had the team watch last year’s game, coach Jim Harbaugh responded with a definite edge. “They’re a team that is multiple at scheme, but they’re very good at what they do,” Harbaugh said to the media on Wednesday. “They’re very confident in their approach, the scheme that they run. That shows up. Hopefully we have a little chip on our shoulder after that last year, what happened to us last year was not good.”
Added quarterback Alex Smith, “Yeah, they came in here and beat us last year. Jumped up on us pretty good, so. Yeah absolutely, even though I didn’t play in that game. No question, still remember it.”
Though they have the same records, it seems the 49ers are a little better than the Bucs. Tampa’s opponents are 6-10, as are the 49ers’. Tampa, however, has played Minnesota and the Manning-less Indianapolis Colts, two 0-4 teams. Their only loss was in Week 1 to Detroit.
At the same time, the argument can be made that the Niners should be 4-0 because the loss to Dallas was a victory in hand. In either case, it should be a game that pits two so-so offenses against pretty good defenses.
The Niners at 23.5 a game rank 13th in points scored and at 18.8 they’re seventh in points allowed. Tampa’s numbers are 21 ppg (20th) and 19.2 allowed (ninth).
At first glance it appears it should be a hard-hitting, low-scoring game. From what we have seen from the 49ers, they are built to be hard-hitting on defense and mistake-free on an albeit limited offense. In this one, however, the 49ers have home-field advantage against a team that played Monday night and then has to travel across the country.
The Niners the last two weeks have been a slow-starting team. They did gain a 16-0 halftime lead against Seattle in Week 1, and a 14-7 lead over Dallas in Week 2, but have trailed at halftime in the last two weeks.
A late drive saved them in Cincinnati, and Smith’s best second half of his career led them to the comeback win in Philly. That shows a quarterback who is doing well and getting better.
Smith may be low in yardage but he’s highly efficient, as his eighth-best rating of 97.7 attests. In contrast, Tampa’s Josh Freeman rates at 81.1, in part to his three TDs against four interceptions. Smith’s 7.4 YPA is about a yard better than Freeman’s.
One stat worth noting, Freeman has been sacked only six times, Smith 14. Keeping Smith upright will be essential against the Bucs.
When they’re getting inside the opponents' 20, the Niners are capitalizing. They have scored 100 percent of the time, with half their possessions resulting in TDs. Defensively, 49er opponents have been inside the 20 14 times (two more than the SF offense), but the defense has held the opposition to four TDs, a 28.6 percent success rate.
Tampa, in contrast, has had red-zone struggles in their first three weeks. In that span they got within the 20 11 times, but scored just three TDs. Against the Colts, however, they scored two TDs and a field goal in red-zone drives.
What makes Freeman’s four interceptions so critical is that two have come in the end zone, stopping scoring chances. Look for more of the same Sunday.
Running back LeGarrette Blount was the difference in Tampa’s 24-17 win over Indianapolis, and when Harbaugh was talking about a “strong” Tampa team, you can see what he means in Blount. The former Oregon standout is averaging 17 carries a game at 4.4 yards per. He’s the motor that keeps the Buccaneers offense moving forward.
Conversely, the Niner defense hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rushing game in 26 games, longest in the NFL. Keeping Blount under control and forcing Tampa into 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations will go a long way to securing a win. Of course, over the last two seasons the Niners have averaged less than 3.6 rushing yards per attempt on first and second downs since 2010.
This year, the Niners haven’t allowed a rushing TD and they are holding opponents to a 32.7 percent conversion rate on third downs, ranking them fourth in the NFL. Better yet, the 49ers defense ranks first in the NFL, allowing just 28.6 pct. on 3rd-and-less than 4.
This game will feature two teams of similar style and talent, with the Niners getting a slight edge in overall defense and receivers while Tampa’s front four are quite good.
It pencils out as a game where scoring chances are rare, the total number of punts are well into double digits and a crucial mistake will provide the difference.
It is the last category that, if things play out as they have so far, will provide the margin of victory. Josh Freeman’s tendency to force throws in critical situations coupled with the cool, controlled play of Alex Smith will guide SF to victory.
“I think consciously, I’m just trying to do less, if that makes sense,” Smith said on Wednesday. “I really felt like I was doing too much for a long time. Pressing too hard, trying to make too many plays instead of just letting them come to me. And that’s kind of what I talked about playing within a system, just being myself and let the plays happen. Really not forcing things. Make good decisions and I think the good plays will come.”