The San Francisco 49ers are on a tear. They have won eight games in a row, can clinch the NFC West before the tryptophan knocks you out on Thursday, and are in line for a first-round bye in the playoffs.
They are the best team in the NFL right now whose name doesn't rhyme with Smackers, but will they surpass Green Bay by the end of the regular season and claim the coveted top seed for the playoffs?
It's not as long of a shot as you may think. The defense is dominant, the running game is unforgiving and the specialists are extremely consistent. Add in the wave of momentum and confidence Coach of the Year shoo-in Jim Harbaugh has instilled, and these red and gold warriors have a legit chance.
Here is how the 49ers can steal the top overall NFC seed from the Green Bay Packers by the time the playoffs roll around.
There are six games left in the 2011 regular season. The 49ers have four of those against division opponents, whose combined win total equals that of San Fran. They have yet to see the Rams, and have a game on the road each against the Seahawks and Cardinals.
Back to the ferocious NFC West slate. The Niners just put a beat-down on the Cardinals in their last game, and I don't see Arizona's fortunes changing next time they meet. That game was so thoroughly dominated by the 49ers, it was comical. The score doesn't reflect it accurately, but the following stats do: over 44 minutes of possession, five takeaways and a John Skelton QB rating of 8.1. Yikes.
The Seahawks actually gave them a fight at Candlestick in Week 1, but Ted Ginn, Jr. decided to go all Devin Hester on them and buried it at the end. In Seattle, the Hawks always seem to play an inspired game. They find crazy, creative ways to win, so you never know, right? Wrong.
Seattle will need to pound the ball with Marshawn Lynch to beat the 49ers because their passing game is just ugly. One problem—the 49ers rush defense is impenetrable. Thirty-two straight games without a 100-yard rusher, and they haven't allowed a rushing touchdown the entire season. Check that one in the win column.
Believe it or not, the Rams are the divisional team that has the most potential to upset the Niners. Sam Bradford has experienced some growing pains this year, but he still has some game. And Steven Jackson of course is a bulldozer. If anyone is going to rack up some decent yardage on the 49ers' front seven, it's Jackson.
Still, it won't be enough as the 49ers will take them home and away, probably with a comfortable two-score margin each time.
First of all, I'm not folding here by saying "or." I think the 49ers will have the edge in both of these contests, including the road game in Baltimore. Surely, they will both pose big challenges as the Ravens and Steelers boast two of the most intimidating defenses in the entire NFL. But the 49ers with less star power have just as much talent, if not more in the linebacking corps and the defensive line.
I'm just trying to be realistic. So, realistically, 15-1 is rare. As is 14-2. But the Niners have already beaten the teams that were deemed "tough" on their schedule. Down with the Eagles in Philadelphia. Boom go the Giants. Lions, Bucs and Bengals oh my? More like goodbye.
The way Jim Harbaugh prepares this team every week and has them playing at an unmerciful pace, I don't think they will take anyone for granted the rest of the way. This is why I believe 14-2 is very plausible, 15-1 very possible.
To beat the Ravens, the 49ers are going to have to rely on the arm of Alex Smith. Not that the running game won't show up, but the Baltimore front seven is really tough. I think it's going to come down to Joe Flacco versus Alex Smith. It's a coin flip the way they've been playing this year, so it could go either way.
I think if the 49ers are going to lose one of these games, it's going to be against the Ravens. Baltimore seems to have a tendency to play to their opponents. That means that they play horribly against bad teams like the Seahawks, and play great against good teams like the Steelers. If Baltimore lays another stinker, the Niners will take it handily, otherwise it's going to be a dog-fight.
One caveat with that prediction though—if Dashon Goldson gets slapped with a suspension for his idiotic fight in the Cardinals game, you can bet the Ravens' chances will vastly improve.
Against Pittsburgh, a key is going to be getting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger. Here's to hoping that John Harbaugh will help his brother out with a little inside information on his division rival. Doubtful, though. If the 49ers can get pressure on Roethlisberger in that game, they should win. The Steelers' QB can be mistake prone when rushed, and I think San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will dial up some blitz schemes to rock him.
Being at home and with the motivational stage that is Monday Night Football, the 49ers will have a big advantage. The Steelers will be psyched up to win a road game that will surely have a huge impact on their own playoff race, so you never know.
Either way, the 49ers need to take one of these games against elite AFC opponents to put themselves in the driver's seat for that number one seed.
Okay, the Packers are incredibly good. Again. Aaron Rodgers is playing like a nerdy version of Tom Brady in his prime, the running game is good and they have some playmakers on defense. Also, if you haven't heard, they are 10-0 and apparently unbeatable.
That last point is where I beg to differ. They were almost upset in their last game by the Buccaneers, and had a close call at Lambeau against the Vikings. By no means does that mean they are worse than the 49ers (I'm not that much of a homer). But it does mean they are human.
The 2007 Patriots went 16-0 because they absolutely demolished their opponents. Green Bay has made some other teams look silly this year, but they aren't an all-around juggernaut like that New England team was.
None of the aforementioned reasons explain why Green Bay will lose twice before the season ends. This does: Their schedule for the last six games is no cake walk. The only game they have that is almost a guaranteed win is against Kansas City in Week 15. But who knows if the Chiefs, who will undoubtedly be foaming at the mouth at the thought of massively upsetting the champs, will pull off a shocker.
Realistically, that's the least likely scenario. So let's move on to the other five games. The Pack will welcome the Oakland Raiders to town, as well as the division-rival Bears and Lions to end the season. They travel to Detroit this Thursday to play a team coming off a 49-point outburst and very capable of matching the Packers in offensive output. And somewhere in the mix, they head to the Meadowlands to take on a very dangerous New York Giants team.
All of those opponents are likely at least going to be in the playoff race until the last week of the season. The Raiders are sleepers in the AFC with the new-found passing attack of Carson Palmer, and assuming playmaker extraordinaire Darren McFadden is back from injury, a whole new element is on the table.
Both games against the Lions will be tough, and the Bears won't be an easy win, even without Jay Cutler at the helm. They've been really good since starting 2-3, and now are starting to make some noise in the wild card race. Lastly, you can never rule out the passing attack and scary defensive line of the Giants, especially at home in a game that will definitely be a must-win for them.
If I had to guess, the Packers will lose in New York, and drop one of their final two games at home to either the Lions or Bears, and finish at 14-2.
Frank Gore has been banged up, Braylon Edwards is slow to recover from a knee injury and Ray McDonald is just getting back into the swing of things.
Considering Alex Smith has played a decent portion of this season with a banged-up running game and two big targets sidelined (Joshua Morgan went down for the season), you can imagine what a boost to the offense it will be when these guys get patched up.
Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon have both proven they can handle the carries when Gore is out, so the 49ers will nurse him back to health by limiting his carries a little bit in the coming weeks. Kyle Williams is starting to emerge as a deep threat in the receiving game, and the 49ers somehow keep their beastly tight end duo a secret week after week.
Lastly, Michael Crabtree is starting to be worth the money he signed for. He had a huge game against the Cardinals, going for over 100 yards. Watching him over the last few weeks, there's no doubt in my mind that his lingering foot problem is gone. He is making quick cuts, burning guys after the catch and throwing smart blocks.
Crabtree is going to be a huge asset to this passing game down the stretch, as defenses like Baltimore and Pittsburgh's will have to contend with more than just Vernon Davis.
Also, having the big boy McDonald back in the middle of the line will just further improve the pass rush and run-stopping abilities of the already ridiculous front seven.
It has been a strange progression for the 49er offense this year. They started a little bit unsure as they got used to a new playbook and a new coaching staff. A lot of dinking and dunking was expertly performed by Smith, and us fans thought we were in for another season of boring, Singletary-esque screen passes.
Luckily, they evolved to an offense that would put up some points early, and then go soft and just be content to hang on until the end. It's a luxury with such a dominant defense.
Luckier still, the offense has turned another corner and ever since the Tampa Bay beat down, has looked capable of putting up 40 points every single game. If, and that's a big if, the offense had been able to convert on even two of their failed red-zone possessions against Arizona, the score would have been more like 40-7 and people would have seen how capable this offense is of getting it into the end zone.
Judging by this constant growth, I have to expect that by the last four or five games of the season, the 49ers will be a complete offense. They will continue to have a dominant running game that eats up the clock and gets the ball into the opposing territory. The fully healed passing game will continue to benefit from improved rapport between Smith and his receivers, and the play-calling by Harbaugh will continue to get bolder.
What you have there is a recipe for success. No more coasting for the final 20 minutes when they are up by two scores. It's going to allow the last couple possessions of some of those divisional games to be quarterbacked by Colin Kaepernick, giving the starters some much needed R & R.
...and it sure as hell won't be Jim Harbaugh. His style of coaching doesn't call for resting players unless a result is absolutely assured. That means that at the end of a blowout, backups will play. But in the final weeks of a season when a playoff spot and even a first-round bye are already in the bag, he still won't rest the starters.
Not when the number one seed is on the line. Harbaugh will expect to win the first playoff game, and he will assume their NFC Championship opponents will be the Packers (wouldn't you?). Harbaugh also knows that the difference between playing that game at Lambeau Field and Candlestick Park is absolutely huge.
If the 49ers have to go into the frozen tundra of Green Bay with the Super Bowl on the line, chances are they will lose. If they welcome the defending champs to their house, the game is going to be significantly closer.
With that in mind, Harbaugh will not rest, and neither will the first team players, until they've assured themselves of the best possible playoff positioning. We've seen first hand(shake) that Harbaugh goes all out in every aspect of the game.
On the other hand, Mike McCarthy is a much more passive coach. He's a great leader, but he isn't and doesn't have to be as risky or bold with his decisions because he's coaching an All-Star team. As soon as the Packers clinch a first-round bye, I think he will let his foot off the gas a little bit.
With such a tough schedule, that's sure to cost them at least one game that they consider meaningless towards the end.
It's going to be extremely difficult for the Packers to go undefeated, let alone 15-1 with the schedule they have left. I expect them to drop one to the motivated Giants in New York in an upset, and then kind of roll over for either the Bears or the Lions in one of their last two home games, when the starters play no more than the first half.
On the other hand, the 49ers know they need that home-field advantage for a potential matchup with Green Bay. They have four divisional games against bad teams and two tough games against the Ravens and Steelers. Look for San Francisco to sweep the division and take one of the games against their AFC foes.
That leaves both teams with a 14-2 record at the end of the regular season. They didn't play head-to-head this year, so you can't use that as a tiebreaker. So, they go to conference record to determine who the number one seed will be. And when all is said and done, the cookie crumbles the 49ers' way because their one NFC loss (Cowboys) trumps the Packers, who will have two.
Here is how I think the NFC standings will play out (wild card winners in italics):
|1.||San Francisco 49ers||14-2|
|3.||St. Louis Rams||5-11|
|1.||New Orleans Saints||10-6|
|3.||Tampa Bay Bucs||8-8|
|1.||Green Bay Packers||14-2|
|1.||New York Giants||10-6|
That leaves the following seeding:
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Green Bay Packers
3. New Orleans Saints
4. New York Giants
5. Philadelphia Eagles
6. Atlanta Falcons
Saints def. Falcons
Giants def. Eagles
49ers def. Giants
Packers def. Saints
49ers vs. Packers—who wins? Oh come on, now. You're asking the impossible. Tune back in around the end of January to find out!