It is the time of the year when rookies start to lag and veterans ache. The opponent, coming off a shutout loss on the road, appears wounded and lackluster. Add in a schedule that would do wonders for frequent flier miles but just adds another draining factor to an already arduous work schedule, and it adds up to an upset waiting to happen.
The Niners are four-point favorites going into Fed Ex Stadium and face a team that is banged up (running back Tim Hightower and No. 1 receiver Santana Moss are out). The Skins are struggling at quarterback (Rex Grossman and John Beck have combined for 12 interceptions) and on the offensive line.
It is a team that appears to be without a lot of weapons on offense, reducing head coach Mike Shanahan’s offensive creativity. And in Harbaugh’s mind, it also is a Redskins team desperate for a win. At 3-4, they are still in the hunt for control of the NFC East, but another loss could prove quite deadly.
Harbaugh will bring that up repeatedly, and here are the five things he will stress so the 49ers will avoid a letdown this Sunday in Washington.
Last week, New Orleans, 5-2 and coming off a 62-7 victory over Indianapolis, seemed a certain lock to defeat a winless Rams team in St. Louis. Too much Steven Jackson (39), too many turnovers and before the Saints knew it, they had a 0-24 hill to climb. They weren't able to accomplish it, losing 31-21.
You could say that the Saints defense was exposed for what it is – weak against the run. But it also shows what can happen when one of the league’s best quarterbacks, Drew Brees, has an off game. Turnovers leading to some easy scores, adds up to a big deficit on the road, equals too much for better teams to overcome.
So the 49ers in-flight movie will be Saints vs. Rams Oct. 30, 2011. It’s not a comedy.
At 16.6 points per game, the Redskins rank 26th in the NFL for points on offense, proof that Shanahan doesn’t have a lot of tools. The loss of Hightower and Moss would be like the 49ers not having Gore and Michael Crabtree.
To their credit, though, the Skins have a pretty good defense. It was much better earlier in the year when the offense contributed, but it ranks sixth in first downs allowed and seventh in points allowed at 19.9.
So, in a game that figures the Redskins' defense to have a home-field edge (noise), the 49er offense will have to do a little better to score when it has the chance. For the most part, they have, scoring 25 out of 27 times once inside the opponents’ 20, but 13 TDs is just under average. Scoring more TDs when that close would take more pressure off the defense.
Speaking of which, the 49er defense has been extremely effective when it has to defend the goal line. The team is first in allowing just 10 TDs, and it's even better in the Red Zone, an NFL-best six touchdowns in 19 trips. The same will be needed Sunday.
It’s easy to look at the numbers and project. Even more so is the tendency to expect more from the elite compared to an underdog. In fact, the NFL is comprised of proud players who do not want to be embarrassed. Harbaugh has to understand that the Redskins and coach Mike Shanahan will do anything to get a win, and it’s not going to be easy on the road.
Like the win last week over Cleveland, what some might consider a 20-10 yawn fest, this game could be very similar but without the fast start. The Niners jumped out to a 17-0 lead and ended the first half with 250-plus yards.
This game could be decidedly different, and the 49er offense will have to do its best not to turn the ball over and give the Redskins easy scores, which only gives them more incentive and the fans more reason to cheer.
The best way to keep the fans quiet is to make the Redskins earn their points by going long distances for their scores. That means no turnovers and continued solid special teams play. It adds up to something like 20-10, but more important is the ‘W’ that comes after the score.
It is the Niners’ fourth game in the eastern time zone within a six-week span, and in less than three weeks they have to return to Baltimore, about 30 miles from Fed Ex Stadium, to play the Ravens on Thanksgiving.
Talk about getting no break from the NFL. It limits the 49ers’ preparation in that they have to account for five hours of airplane time when they could be on the practice field. There is no doubt that west coast teams flying east have it tougher than east coasters going west.
Teams flying east lose eight hours in all — five in the plane, plus three in the time change. Thus, after a short Friday morning practice, a 1:00 p.m. flight from San Francisco doesn’t land in D.C. until 9:00 p.m. By the time they get settled in the hotel, it’s 11:00 pm.
Here’s the kicker: But it’s really 8:00 p.m. on the body, so who’s tired then? No one. But even after a day it is difficult for the body to adjust. Who has to get up early to play on Sunday at 1:00 pm EST? The Niners, whose bodies might feel like 10:00 a.m.
Blame the NFL if there’s a letdown.
We saw it last week, a tackle-eligible play to Joe Staley. And then another, the play-action throw to Isaac Sopoaga (90). Slowly but surely the 49ers are giving opponents a little more than Gore up the middle and the slant to Crabtree or Edwards.
Perhaps this week an appearance from Colin Kaepernick would do well to run formations similar to his “Pistol offense” days at the University of Nevada. We saw Alex Smith take off on two planned runs last weekend, so who is to say the Niners won’t want to add even more of a threat via the ground game than adding Kaepernick to the game plan?
It is one way to keep the team excited for the game and thus avoid the letdown.
For all this, remember that the Niners have been lucky this year. A month ago, they played the Eagles when they were way off their game. Philly looks especially dangerous now. Before that, they battled and won in Cincinnati, which now appears to be much improved.
The win in Detroit was a standout, come-from-behind victory, no doubt, but then came Cleveland, which was riddled with injuries to key players.
Now the Redskins have similar problems — key players out. But Harbaugh will also remind the 49ers that injured animals are the most dangerous.