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4 Reasons to Take San Francisco 49ers Seriously as Super Bowl Contenders

Ted JohnsonAnalyst INovember 1, 2011

4 Reasons to Take San Francisco 49ers Seriously as Super Bowl Contenders

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    Here we are, not even midway in the 2011 season, and it is all but confirmed that the San Francisco 49ers will make the playoffs.

    Having a four-game lead in your division after just seven games does that. Of course, playing in the NFC West helps.

    Seattle, St. Louis and Arizona currently post a combined record of 4-17, and five of SF’s remaining nine games come within the division. However, the strong advantage at this point in the season has nothing to do with the rest of the NFC West and everything to do with what the 49ers have proven on the field.

    Moreover, the schedule includes games against non-NFCW opponents like the Giants and Steelers at home, the Redskins (this Sunday) and Ravens on the road. Right now the best matchup appears, without question, to be Dec. 19 at home against Pittsburgh.  

    Fans who have been watching week-in and week-out might notice several factors that can serve as the foundation of a rather surprising but compelling argument: There is no reason right now to discount the 49ers as a serious No. 2 seed going into the NFC Conference playoffs in January.

    What’s more, there’s a chance they could become the top seed.

    Here are four reasons why the 49ers have to be considered serious Super Bowl contenders.

Stop the Run

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    The Niners take away the run.

    Especially against top-notch running teams like Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, the Niners defense—particularly the front seven—have outplayed their opponents.

    This, a defense that leads the league in points allowed (107 in seven games for a 15.3 average), ranks first in rush yards allowed (514,or just over 73 a game), fourth in yards-per-rush attempt (3.5), hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rushing performance by a back in 29 games and has a plus-10 advantage in turnovers.

    Finally, consider what the Niners have done against premier running backs, namely LeSean McCoy of Philadelphia and LaGarrette Blount of Tampa Bay.

    McCoy nine rushes, 18 yards. Blount: 10 rushes for 34. Together: 19 rushes for 52 yards, or 2.7 yards per attempt.

    No defense in the league has been as effective against No. 1 running backs.

    What’s more, this is a team that even in its base defense can stop the run and put pressure on the quarterback.

    Right now it’s hard to find another team that produces such effectiveness out of a base unit. And that’s a huge advantage, because play-action passes and screen plays have to contend with a full contingent of defenders in the secondary.

    There are more defenders to react, less chance that a receiver will be left wide open.

Run

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    Frank Gore ranks fifth in the league in rushing with 675 yards and averages nearly five yards a crack.

    Better yet, he is tied with other league leaders like Adrian Peterson, Fred Jackson and Michael Turner with three runs over 40 yards.

    The Niners do have big-play capability, and it is through the run. This is particularly compelling because only the Minnesota Vikings, led by Peterson, have as limited a passing game as the 49ers.

    McCoy of the Eagles, Jackson of the Bills and even Matt Forte of the Bears all play in offenses with better passing attacks.

    Other teams know this, and they focus on stopping the 49ers' running game, and yet the Niners continue to excel. This is a good sign, because in the playoffs, when the weather can be dicey and the field conditions iffy, being able to run is the best way to control the ball.

    Granted, Green Bay and the wondrous Aaron Rodgers can score from any place on the field, except one—the sideline.

    Another thing about running the ball—it particularly becomes necessary in frigid conditions, such as Green Bay in late January.

Freedom to Experiment

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    With such a big lead in the division, coach Jim Harbaugh and staff can begin to think getting more faces into the game.

    That’s why Adam Boone at tackle, Justin Peelle at tight end, Kendall Hunter at running back and even Kyle Williams at wide receiver can see more action.

    It might even be time for a series of plays designed for the unique skills of Colin Kaepernick. The point is to add as many dimensions to offense, defense and special teams as possible.

    That builds depth, improves team morale, and adds breadth and diversity to all the units. In other words, it brings a motivated, together team with lots of options that require other teams to think about. 

Maturing

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    In a way, the San Francisco 49ers are like a Pac-Man game.

    Each opponent they devour makes them stronger, more confident and capable. The over-riding feeling within the locker room is “yes we can,” and it doesn’t matter if it is Tarvaris Jackson or Aaron Rodgers (12) or the 1985 Chicago Bears defense, success is just a matter of belief and will.

    Consider the way the schedule plays out.

    At Washington, then home games against the Giants and Cardinals, followed by the Thanksgiving game at Baltimore.

    Right now, none of those games appears to be an unattainable victory, even on the road.

    Even a loss or two should, if they continue to play at his level on offense, leave them with a 12-4 record. Perhaps a motivated Steelers team edges them in December, perhaps not.

    But it doesn’t take much to consider the way this team is playing in light of the schedule to think the Niners could finish 7-2 for an overall mark of 13-3, which would guarantee them a first-round bye and then a home game to start the playoffs.

    One thing about the NFL season, at 16 games it is such a long season that even the best teams don’t show up every week with their best efforts.

    And that applies to Green Bay and other top-notch teams. Green Bay could finish with two losses just as easily as the Niners running the table and going 15-1.

    You just don’t know. But when the 49ers' schedule first came out it appeared the front end was the most difficult—Dallas, at Cincinnati, at Philly, Tampa Bay, at Detroit.

    What’s more, it appeared that season-ending road games against St. Louis and Seattle might have playoff implications. Right now, they might not mean a thing and the 49ers could dress Jennifer Montana as a courtesy to her husband’s contributions to the team.

    Thanks to the good start—and in fact the most ardent can say they Niners should be 7-0 had they played Dallas a little better in the second half—the Niners can rest key players if needed.

    There is everything to say that the Niners are guaranteed at least the second seed in the NFC, which means a bye week to rest and scout, a home playoff game and then one game for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

     Even if that one game is in Green Bay, as it appears it would be, I don’t think the Niners are all that worried that they wouldn’t be able to compete.

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