After shocking the NFL by racing to a 10-1 record and looking like the second-best team in the league, the San Francisco 49ers have now dropped two of their last three games and suddenly look vulnerable. A tough 16-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12 and a disappointing 21-19 defeat at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals last week have really soured people on San Francisco's long-term status as a contender.
Tonight, the 49ers welcome the 10-3 Pittsburgh Steelers to town for a Monday Night Football showdown, and calling it a must-win game for San Francisco wouldn't be an overstatement.
Yes, the 49ers are already in the playoffs, but they need to turn things around on the field if they want to stop their current downward trend. They need to prove that they can finish off drives and not just rely on their defense to win games. Last week against the Cardinals, San Francisco had the ball inside Arizona's 10-yard line three times in the second quarter and came away with field goals each time.
San Francisco is also converting a league-worst 35.6 percent of its red-zone trips into touchdowns on the season, and in their last 19 times inside their opponent's 20-yard line, the Niners have just three touchdowns.
Those numbers need to turn around quickly if Jim Harbaugh's team hopes to be taken serious as a contender.
Running back Frank Gore was phenomenal from Week 4 through Week 9, averaging 126.8 yards per game during that stretch. Since then, he hasn't topped 88 yards and is averaging just 54.4 yards per game. Considering the limitations San Francisco has in its passing attack, Gore slowing down is a huge blow to the offense.
The 49ers boast wins over the Detroit Lions and New York Giants, but other than that, they haven't really topped a team that is likely headed to the playoffs this season. Tonight is the perfect chance for them to prove that they can hang with a fellow contender.
If San Francisco wants to gain confidence as it approaches the playoffs, it must pull out a win over the Steelers tonight.