49ers at Cardinals: Just Man Enough

cardsRick Scuteri/AP

The 49ers close out the regular season with a road victory, extending their win streak to 6 after a close defensive battle against the Arizona Cardinals. For the second week in a row, the 49ers looked out of synch. A great first half gave way to some of the most porous defense the 49ers have played all year, made worse by an offense that couldn’t convert a single 3rd in the second half. Once again, certain players stepped up at the right moment to seal the game, but the 49ers didn’t heartily earn this win. Anquan Boldin, no doubt hoping to end the season on a high note, had a huge day, but some conservative play calling and less than impressive pass rush gave the Cardinals a chance they should never have gotten. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep had another great game against an excellent defense. He still isn’t taking over the game and dominating in all four quarters, but he has proven extremely efficient. Even if he doesn’t throw a ton, his propensity for ball security has helped the 49ers stay out ahead of their opponents. The Cardinals’ defense took the run away early, putting the offense on Kaep’s shoulders, but he was able to step up and lead scoring drives in the 49ers’ first three possessions.

Anquan Boldin

Whether it was his desire to show off in front of his former team or simply stay hot heading into the playoffs, Anquan Boldin lit up the Cardinals, picking up 149 yards on 9 receptions and a touchdown. He was able to outmuscle a very good Cardinals secondary and give the 49ers an early lead. He also did a little coaching on the sideline, telling rookie wideout Quinton Patton to rise to the occasion.

Quinton Patton

Patton might be the most hyped inactive player in league history. After winning the hearts of 49ers fans everywhere by flying to San Francisco right after the draft out of sheer excitement, Patton spent most of the season on the sideline. He saw his first real action on Sunday, picking up 60 total yards with 1 rush and 2 receptions. His second catch was an athletic grab over the head of Antoine Cason that allowed Phil Dawson to kick the go-ahead field goal. I was pretty skeptical of Patton’s ability amid all the hype, but he proved me and any other doubters wrong on Sunday. If you were one of his many fans, congratulations: you knew it all along.

quintonpattonedit

The Bad Things:

Defense

After a solid first half, the defense struggled to get anything right, surrendering 482 total yards and allowing Arizona to move the ball effortlessly. The defense had a tough time against Palmer earlier in the season, but looked even worse than they did in week 6. Yet again, it came down to turnovers; Navorro Bowman’s early pick kept the pressure on the Cardinals, and they were never able to take a lead. The pass rush was nonexistent, giving Palmer all the time in the world to throw to Arizona’s dangerous receivers. I am hoping this is the last time we see such an inconsistent effort; playing this poorly won’t fly in the playoffs.

Offensive Play Calling

The 49ers’ biggest failure of the day was their inability to extend the early lead. They were never able to make a transition to the run, which the Cardinals stubbornly defended, and looked totally lost in the second half. A lack of creativity on 3rd-and-short situations doomed them early in the 3rd quarter; they failed to gain a single first down rushing, including a 4th-and-1 give to Anthony Dixon that saw him stuffed at the line of scrimmage. After an incendiary first quarter, Greg Roman stayed basic and conservative. I have a feeling this is more an attempt to keep some plays hidden from other playoff teams than just lackadaisical planning. We will find out soon.

The Other Thing:

Run Game

The Cardinals held the 49ers to 83 yards on the ground, their second lowest total of the year. Frank Gore only got 14 yards on 13 attempts, which limited what the 49ers could to to eat the clock. Normally I would put these stats in the “Bad” column, but the 49ers’ ability to move the ball without the run was actually really nice to see. Taking away the run has been a common strategy against the 49ers, but Kaep has been tough to stop with a full complement of receivers. With Patton emerging as a viable receiving option, stacking the box to stop Gore may not be a successful approach any longer.

49ers vs Cardinals: What To Watch For

vdcardsBen Margot/AP

The 49ers head out to Arizona for the final game of the regular season, taking on one of the hottest teams in the NFC. The Cardinals pulled off a major upset last week, beating the Seahawks in Seattle with a combination of tough defense and… tough defense. Arizona is an interesting team; they have some serious flaws, but the intensity of their play on the defensive side of the ball has made up for it. Carson Palmer has hardly been a revelation at quarterback, but he has proven capable of delivering the ball to Arizona’s real offensive studs: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington. I believe the 49ers can win this game, but it still feels like a toss up. Here is what I will be watching for:

Pass Rush

After an off game against the Falcons, the pass rush will need to play big in the desert. They are facing another terrible offensive line and will getting after a quarterback with two left feet; I have no doubt that they will generate pressure, but whether or not it will have an impact isn’t clear. Matt Ryan was able to pick apart the 49ers with quick passes to his receivers, and I’m sure Bruce Arians and the Cardinals noticed. The 49ers won’t be able to totally eliminate Arizona’s passing game, but forcing Palmer to make the mistakes he’s known for will go a long way towards ensuring a win.

Run Game

The Cardinals defense is ranked 1st in the league against the run. I don’t put a huge amount of stock in those rankings, but I would be willing to bet that the Cardinals will try to take away the 49ers’ ground attack. Making an early statement in the run game is essential; the 49ers need to get physical and punch the Cardinals in the mouth (beak?). The 49ers were able to pick up 149 yards against Arizona in week 6, the most rushing yards the Cardinals have allowed. After a beastly game against the Falcons, the 49ers halfback corp needs to brutalize Arizona’s front seven and help open up the passing game.

Michael Crabtree

Everyone’s favorite matchup goes into its fifth round on Sunday:

The last time these two teams met, Vernon Davis had a huge day, picking up 180 yards and 2 touchdowns. Whether or not Crabtree has a great game on paper, his presence will help Davis, Anquan Boldin and maybe even Quinton Patton get open and move the ball. If this game goes like it should, Colin Kaepernick will sit back and take the shots he wants to take. With Davis as fast as ever and Crabtree almost back to full strength, Arizona’s secondary will be in for a long day.

Falcons at 49ers: Fare Thee Well, Candlestick

APTOPIX Falcons 49ers Football.JPEG-00dce

Well, that was entertaining. The 49ers got the better of the Atlanta Falcons on Monday, securing their spot in the playoffs. The game was far closer than anyone anticipated, keeping Candlestick’s final regular season crowd on the edge of their seats until the very end. In terms of entertainment value, it was a great game that will be remembered for a long time. In terms of home team performance, it was an awkward, uncharacteristic and mildly disconcerting showing by the whole team. The combination of the pressure of closing out the ‘Stick, the playoff berth on the line and some great execution by the Falcons kept the 49ers’ defense wound up and ineffective. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Run Game

Anthony Dixon and Will Tukuafu spearheaded a monster day for the 49ers running corp, who ravaged the Falcons for 199 yards on the ground. Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Colin Kaepernick all made big plays, picked up 7 first downs, 2 touchdowns and averaged 6.64 yards per play. Gore and Hunter led the 49ers’ final scoring drive, an incredible 3:35 minute rush that seemed to push the game out of Atlanta’s reach. It was the sort of game the 49ers should have against a defense as spotty as the Falcons’. Whether Dixon and Tukuafu can fill in for Bruce Miller against better teams remains to be seen.

“The Pick at the Stick”

Yes, the Falcons are a bad team, and yes, the 49ers let the game get a little too close. Neither of these things really diminish what will go down as one of the greatest moments in recent 49ers history. After nearly four quarters of soft, conservative and mostly ineffective defense, Navorro Bowman and Tramaine Brock engineered a play that, at the time, seemed impossible. That is not to say that Matt Ryan was un-interceptable; it was more a question of momentum, and Bowman’s runback defying what everyone watching that drive was thinking. At that point in the game, most fans were hoping for a field goal, or for the 49ers offense to put together another game saving drive. Moments like that play, which go against everyone’s expectations, are what make football fun to watch.

The Bad Thing:

Defense

After weeks of stifling defense, the 49ers’ D looked totally inept. Unable to get stops or force turnovers, the 49ers seemed powerless against Matt Ryan’s passing attack. It was reminiscent of week 1, when Aaron Rodgers picked apart the 49ers’ secondary with quick, accurate passes and short routes. I have to hand it to Ryan; he stood tall against the 49ers’ pass rush and kept the ball moving. Matt Ryan is an excellent quarterback, and the 49ers have struggled against pass-heavy offenses in the past. However, the most discouraging part of the 49ers’ defensive foibles was the pass rush, which failed to generate significant pressure against Atlanta’s awful offensive line. All that said, I am confident that the 49ers’ defense will get it together after a down game.

The Other Things:

Offense

The offense went from cold to hot, made some great adjustments at halftime and made up for a 3 point first half with four consecutive scoring drives. I have a hard time crediting Atlanta’s defense for the slow start; the 49ers seemed to trip over themselves and fail to execute properly. Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald and Michael Crabtree dropped crucial passes and left the offense to sputter until the third quarter. It was a very conservative game, which was wise considering the playoff implications, but the offense’s strong play in the second half should be recognized as among the best this season.

49ers vs. Falcons: What to Watch For

Frank GoreAP

The 49ers return to San Francisco for their 15th game of the season, taking on the 4-10 Atlanta Falcons. It will be the last regular season game at Candlestick Park, and, barring some crazy playoff scenarios, will be the last time the 49ers play on Bill Walsh field. The Falcons are very different from the last time they played the 49ers. Injuries and free agency have depleted Atlanta’s roster, forcing them to rely too heavily on rookies and questionable backups. Many called their 13-3 run in 2012 unsustainable; their winning record was bloated with narrow wins and comebacks, concealing their flaws. This is a very winnable game, but the postseason implications are not lost on the Falcons, who would like nothing more than to take down the team that ended their playoff run last season. Here is what I will be watching for:

Anthony Dixon: Bruce Miller is out for the season, forcing the coaching staff to fill in a major hole. Dixon has the physical tools to play fullback, but whether or not he is able to replicate Miller’s success as a pass catcher remains to be seen. Dixon will be entering free agency at the end of the season, and the next few games will be an excellent opportunity for him to prove his worth to the 49ers or any other team that might be interested.

Pass Rush: The Falcons’ offensive line has been hit hard by injury this season. Atlanta’s vaunted aerial attack has been reduced to a flaming pile of garbage, with Matt Ryan standing on top trying to figure out how to throw passes while his feet are on fire. Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks will be in a position to set the tone early by getting after the Falcons’ signal caller. Ryan has actually performed well this season considering the shape the team is in, and it will be imperative that the 49ers prevent him from establishing any kind of rhythm.

Run Defense: The 49ers will face an old nemesis in Steven Jackson, who the Falcons picked up in the offseason. Jackson has done damage to the 49ers in the past, but is having an underwhelming season. The 49ers need to keep him from being a factor; keeping the Falcons’ offense one dimensional is essential if they want to control the pace of the game.

Offense: The 49ers’ offense has been steadily improving since Michael Crabtree returned, and they must keep it up in order to clinch a playoff spot. The Falcons defense lacks stopping power, and tomorrow’s game will be a great chance to make sure the run and pass games are in synch. The 49ers want to make the last game at the ‘Stick a memorable one, but need to be calm and efficient to ensure a win. It has been really fun to watch this offense evolve over the last few weeks, and they will have plenty of chances to keep up the momentum tomorrow.

The 49ers and the Press

kaepMichael Macor

The press around the 49ers organization has been one of the low points of the 2013 season. A general frustration with the tight-lipped stance taken by Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh and other members of the team has transformed into willful criticism of the 49ers for the meaninglessness or brevity of their answers. The need to produce compelling stories is a constant in the life of a sports reporter, and when a reporter is only covering one franchise, a lack of interesting information from the team and coaching staff makes the job that much more difficult.

I understand this frustration, but the 49ers’ treatment of the press hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of the team or the games they play. Of the many tools available to a sports reporter, the least compelling is interview or press-conference based writing. Athletes are, in my experience, not particularly articulate when it comes to describing their performance. I have never watched a press conference or read an interview transcript that helped me understand the team better. Almost all of them contain the exact same phrasing, catchy ESPN-inspired phrases and platitudes that mean next to nothing. Matt Maiocco matched up pregame interviews from Russell Wilson and Kaep, comparing how they answered the same questions about their team. Even a cursory glance shows that both players say the exact same thing, but one says it faster. Nothing in Wilson’s sprawling laundry list responses overshadow Kaep’s terse throw away answers; both are saying almost nothing.

Mercury News reporter and general shit-starter Tim Kawakami recently wrote an article citing some suspect evidence that Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke do not work well together. Glossing over the fact that Harbaalke has a combined record of 34 and 11, Kawakami states that some inconsistencies between Harbaugh’s claims at press conferences and the actions taken by the front office proves that the two butt heads on a regular basis. This article would be relevant if the 49ers were in the midst of a losing season or such ‘tension’ was manifesting on the field. As it stands, most of the inconsistencies had little or no impact on the team. Harbaugh is an intense person, and I would have trouble believing that he and Baalke never had any disagreements. This type of article isn’t bad because it might be wrong, it is bad because it doesn’t legitimately enrich anyone’s understanding of the team or the front office.

This is not to say the press has been wholly awful this season. Film breakdowns, game analysis and articles based on both the practice field and the games themselves are great, and improve our enjoyment of the 49ers and football itself. In my opinion, athletes are the most ‘communicative’ on the field; their physical successes and failures in game provide the information we care about. What they say before and after games, and in press conferences is far less important, and should be treated as such.

49ers at Buccaneers: A Step Forward

VDBOMBGetty Images

The 49ers move into double digit wins, notching their tenth (and fourth consecutive) victory after taking down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They are one win away from securing a playoff birth, and are looking better and better as the season goes on. It was a resounding win, but the team lost one of their key role-players to injury. Fullback Bruce Miller fractured his scapula and is likely out for the remainder of the season. He has been a big, if relatively unseen, part of the 49ers’ offense thus far, and it will be interesting to see what the coaching staff does to replace him. Here is what I saw on Sunday:

The Good Things:

Offense

The 49ers had an excellent game plan coming into this matchup. The offense was not just balanced, but eerily symmetrical, with the 49ers picking up 189 passing yards and 185 rushing yards. Despite the win, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the offense was struggling to turn the corner at times. The 49ers got into Tampa territory three times only to stall and punt the ball away. There was also a lack of execution in the red zone, but both of these things are small strikes against what was in the end a great offensive effort. Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the 49ers game plan was the distribution; every player (except Mario Manningham) made a contribution, complementing a strong game from Frank Gore.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep has been improving steadily over the last few games, and played what I thought was his best all-around game of the season. He was accurate and decisive, and kept the ball moving through the whole game. His improvisation and ability to extend plays was the most remarkable part of this game; his 39 yards rushing included two 3rd down scrambles that resulted in a new set of downs. It is clear that having Michael Crabtree helps other receivers to get open, making Kaep’s speed and evasiveness all the more dangerous. Tampa’s defense, easily the strongest part of the team, was kept on its heels for most of the game.

Defense

The defense was excellent yet again. They got after Mike Glennon and the Bucs’ offensive line, allowing only two scoring drives the whole game. They held Tampa to 13 first downs and 183 total yards, marking the third time this season the 49ers have held an offense under 200 yards. The Bucs’ two drives were impressive; Glennon weathered the storm of the 49ers’ pass rush and took advantage of some blown coverage to pick up 172 total yards and keep the game interesting. The defense was able to control the game by holding Tampa to 39 yards on the ground, their lowest rushing yards allowed this year.

Special Teams

The coverage and return units were excellent on Sunday. LaMichael James provided some solid returns while Raymond Ventrone led another game of suffocating coverage. Kendall Hunter’s recovery of a botched special teams handoff effectively ended the game; it pushed the score out of the Bucs’ reach and ensured a win long before Glennon threw an interception to Eric Reid.

The Bad Thing:

Penalties

The 49ers lost 62 yards on 8 penalties, which is above average for the season. The last two games agains the Rams and Seahawks were heavily penalized, but that is to be expected against division rivals. The Buccaneers are the most penalized team in the NFL, but looked calm and disciplined in comparison to the 49ers. Many of the penalties were stupid and preventable; the coaching staff needs to iron these lapses out.

The Other Things:

Offensive Line

It was a mediocre game for the offensive line, who struggled to deal with the Bucs’ blitzes, but were able to power the run game to 185 yards. Kaep’s improvisation came in the face of Tampa’s pass rush, meaning some of his completions could have easily been sacks. The o-line has been banged up, but has played reasonably well without Mike Iupati. However, it is clear that their play has regressed somewhat since last season.

Michael Crabtree

Crab made some great plays, and looked very much like the clutch receiver we remember from 2012. He also committed one of the dumbest penalties of the year, chucking the ball away in frustration and costing the team 15 yards in the middle of a critical drive. He has been penalized several times since his return, most notably picking up two flags and losing 20 yards in his first offensive series against the Rams. Crab looks eager to make an impact on the 49ers’ offense, but getting emotional is clearly going to do more harm than good. The threat he represents has helped the offense to grow and evolve, but he needs to show discipline or he will undo any the good he provides.

49ers vs. Buccaneers: What to Watch For

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After a bruising statement win over the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers are traveling across the country to take on what has proven to be one of the more bizarre ballclubs in the NFL. The Buccaneers have been in bad shape for most of the season, but have picked things up a bit after starting 0-8. They were very aggressive in free agency, but are just now brining the collective talent on the team to bear. That said, their four victories are not, as some have claimed, a sign of a great team that is being held back by coach-villain Greg Schiano. My concern going into this game is how seriously the 49ers take it. It is essential that the 49ers win the rest of their games; whatever happens playoff-wise, this team needs to stay on top of things until the end of the regular season. Here is what to watch for:

Defense: The Bucs were able to shock Seattle on the road, putting up great numbers against one of the best defenses in the league. They did so with a vicious ground attack, led by Mike James. The Bucs’ roster has been depleted, and they will face the 49ers sans James and Doug Martin. That said, they proved in Seattle that they can out-finesse physical defenses. The 49ers will need to stay sharp and keep the Bucs from making anything big happen early in the game. The way this defense has played, it is hard to imagine them struggling, but given the travel, early game time and brutality of their last game, it is difficult to be totally confident.

Pass Rush: Tampa Bay’s offensive line is mediocre, and the Smith brothers are well-placed to have a field day against Mike Glennon. The Buc’s rookie QB has been inconsistent, looking great against Seattle, Detroit and Atlanta but otherwise failing to operate well in Schiano’s system. Putting pressure on him early and often will help keep Tampa’s offense from getting into any kind of rhythym. This would be a good time to work in Corey Lemonier to spell Aldon Smith and show the offense something it hasn’t prepared for.

Offensive Synergy: I don’t expect the 49ers to score a whole lot in this game. If the 49ers win the turnover battle, things could get out of hand. Otherwise, this game should be balanced and conservative. With more targets, Colin Kaepernick has been better about distributing the ball. This game will be a great opportunity to find an effective balance between the run and pass games, something that has eluded Kaep and Greg Roman thus far. The Bucs’ secondary is very good, and leads the league in interceptions. Some early success through the air should give way to some 49ers’ ground and pound.

Michael Crabtree: After looking mediocre against Seattle, Crabtree will no doubt get some chances to prove himself against Tampa Bay. His speed may not be there yet, but another pair of sure hands would go a long way towards helping the team. The 49ers passing attack has leaned heavily on Anquan Boldin’s pass-catching ability; having another physical receiver who is willing to fight for the ball would make things a lot easier on Boldin and Kaep.

Seahawks at 49ers: Defending Candlestick

Kyle Terada

Kyle Terada

The 49ers beat the Seahawks on Sunday, preventing Seattle from clinching the division. A glance at the numbers would tell you that it was an ugly, defensive game, and you would be right. It was also one of the best games of the season, which showcased how good the 49ers are, and hinting at how much better they could be. An incredible second half by the defense and excellent special teams controlled the game, making the margin of victory feel much larger than two points. It wasn’t dominance, and the 49ers offense still hasn’t hit its stride, but it was the outcome we wanted and should give the team confidence as they push for the playoffs. Beating a team that only a few days ago was considered the best in the league goes a long way. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Defense

Their play wasn’t perfect, but considering how well Seattle has looked on offense in the past, it was an excellent game for the 49ers’ D. Limiting Russell Wilson to a career low 2 yards rushing was huge, as was holding Marshawn Lynch to 74 yards on the ground. The defense did a great job preventing big plays, keeping Wilson in front of them and covering Seattle’s receivers. However, it was their adjustments going into the second half that set this game apart. Holding the Seahawks to 83 yards and 3 points in the last two quarters was remarkable; their stifling play was best encapsulated by a game-saving red zone stand that kept Seattle from scoring a touchdown. After a 38 yard return from Golden Tate, the Seahawks took over at San Francisco’s 27 yard line. They only managed to gain 14 yards, the defense stuffing Lynch for 5 yards on three carries and giving the offense a chance to retake the lead. I have written about Seattle’s ability to lock down the fourth quarter and come back; it is a testament to the 49ers defense that they made such a comeback impossible.

Frank Gore

It was a mostly uneven day for Gore, who saw limited use, but, as we all know, delivered the play of the game. Taking away that play, his yards per carry stand at about 3.7, which is low but not terrible given the tenacity of Seattle’s defense. He left the game with an injury early on, but made his impact felt in the fourth quarter, busting out a 51 yard dash that set the 49ers up for the game winning field goal. The mesmerizing .gif of his run encapsulates why Gore is one of the best backs in the league. A great play call and some excellent blocks from Bruce Miller and Vance McDonald gave Gore a big hole, but it was his incredibly subtle movements across the line of scrimmage that made the play. Betting on Earl Thomas to go after him, Gore feints left as he enters the Seahawks’ secondary. As Thomas bites, Gore turns on the jets, streaking between Thomas and Richard Sherman and grinding Seattle’s hopes and dreams into dust. Realizing he didn’t have a chance to take it to the house, Gore goes down at Seattle’s 18 yard line, allowing the clock to run. His vision, intelligence and speed make this play, in my opinion, the play of the year.

Special Teams

The 49ers’ special teams unit rose to the occasion, providing great coverage for most of the game. Raymond Ventrone, Kassim Osgood and LaMichael James had great days, giving Seattle’s top-flight special teamers a run for their money. Osgood’s blocked punt was a great tone-setter, even if the 49ers’ offense wasn’t able to fully capitalize off of it.

The Bad Thing:

Red Zone Execution

The 49ers mostly fell apart in the red zone, settling for two field goals and a boneheaded interception inside Seattle’s 20 yard line. Seattle is very stingy, and it wasn’t necessarily surprising that they were able to stall drives. What was surprising was the stubborn play calling, which kept the 49ers from reaching the end zone. Running up the gut into a stacked box hasn’t worked well this season, and it isn’t going to work going forward. Colin Kaepernick’s interception was the result of a bad throw, and it echoed a similar red zone pick he threw against Seattle in week 2. The win was great, but the team will have to take full advantage of red zone appearances if they want to win in the playoffs.

The Other Things:

Penalties

As expected this game was heavily penalized, with Sherman, Pete Carroll and even golden boy Wilson complaining about the amount of flags that went against them. It was a poorly officiated game, but it struck me (and everyone else) as more ineptitude than favoritism. As a matter of fact, the referees mishandled the blocked punt, and took ten yards away from the 49ers. No penalty call or non-call ‘stole’ the game from either team; Seattle committing lots of penalties goes right in line with their season, which has been the second most penalized of the year.

Offense

If the offense is looking to get hot before the playoffs, this game might not be the best blueprint. Kaep looked shaky but got enough done and led some solid drives. This isn’t terrible worrisome, as it was against one of the strongest defenses in the league. Many are saying that the best is yet to come; hopefully this offense is close to turning the corner and getting back to its winning ways.

Michael Crabtree

Crab didn’t have a very good day, netting 40 yards on 4 catches. As some have pointed out, he was only a couple of drops from a huge day, but it is clear that Crab isn’t ready to be 49ers’ number one just yet. If he can get his pass-catching skills going, he might become a big factor in the playoff push. His development in the next couple of games will be interesting to watch.

49ers vs. Seahawks: What To Watch For

49ershawks

The 49ers face the Seahawks for the second time on Sunday in a game that feels sort of important. It isn’t quite a must win; Seattle is the last playoff-bound team that the 49ers will play this season (unless Arizona continues to make a push), meaning they will be well set up to compete for the 6th seed should they lose. The importance is more psychological. Allowing Seattle to clinch the division at Candlestick would be annoying, and it would make the prospect of facing the Seahawks at Century Link in the playoffs all the more daunting. The last two matchups, Seattle seemed to get under the 49ers’ skin and control the game. They need to shake this feeling of ownage, and shake the narrative that the Seahawks are an insurmountable opponent. Nothing I have seen this season tells me that the 49ers cannot win this game. What to watch for:

Defense: The 49ers defense did pretty well against the Seahawks the last time they faced off; it was the turnover battle and a flurry of penalties that eventually led to the lopsided score. Russell Wilson had a particularly underwhelming game, going 8-19, 142 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 pick. Seattle’s offense has improved since, but the 49ers’ defense has gotten scarier as well. The pass rush will be crucial in this game; it has been picking up steam over the last few weeks, and needs to have a big day against Seattle’s mediocre offensive line. Keeping Marshawn Lynch out of rhythm and Wilson on his back will go a long way. Similarly, the secondary has gotten stronger, with Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright bolstering a hard-hitting pair of safeties in Eric Reid and Donte Whitner. This defense has done well against hard-running offenses (Washington) and aerial attacks (Green Bay, New Orleans), but they will need to stay balanced if they want to handle the Seahawks.

Run Game: Frank Gore’s recent struggles, mostly the result of opposing defenses working to take away the run, need to end. Greg Roman needs to make an early commitment to the run and keep Seattle on its heels. The Seahawks’ defense isn’t great against the run, and the only way the 49ers will get anything going in the air will be by forcing Seattle to sell out to stop Gore. Hopefully, the home field environment and a few weeks of limited ground attack will set Gore up for some big plays.

Vernon Davis: The last two times the 49ers played the Seahawks, Davis left the game early after taking a big hit. He is an indispensable part of the 49ers’ offense, and, whether or not he has a big pass-catching day, needs to stay healthy. His blocking is a huge part of what powers Gore and Kendall Hunter in big-bodied, physical running plays like Trap and Wham. Losing him against Carolina and Indianapolis hamstrung the offense, and it cannot happen against Seattle.

Early Starts: The offense doesn’t need to be incredible to win this game. A revitalized receiving corp will be helpful, but only if used effectively. The 49ers need to get started early, however, if they want to control the field. Scoring a touchdown or at least putting together some long drives in the first quarter will help keep the defense fresh and knock the wind out of Seattle’s secondary. The Seahawks are a team that thrives on momentum, and keeping them off-balance is essential if the offense wants to get anything going.

Penalties: Seattle is the league’s second most penalized team, averaging 74.25 yards lost per game. On the road, this number ticks up to 81, and against NFC West opponents, 79. The last time the 49ers played them, they outdid the Seahawks, losing an appalling 121 yards in penalties to Seattle’s 84. Many penalties came on third down, and kept Seattle drives alive. As we saw last week against the Rams, the 49ers tend to get scrappy against divisional opponents (averaging 81.5 vs. NFC West), but they have otherwise been pretty clean, averaging 54 yards lost per game. The Seahawks have a reputation as smack-talkers, and the 49ers will need to lock things down if they want to keep the game winnable. Stupid penalties sustaining Seattle drives or putting the offense in long-yardage situations will destroy their chances, particularly in a defensive battle like this game promises to be. The cooler heads will prevail on Sunday.

Turnover Battle: Turnovers will loom large in this game. The 49ers were utterly defeated in the turnover battle last time, coughing up the ball 5 times to Seattle’s 1. Kaepernick, and the offense as a whole, has since improved ball security, but the Seahawks are notorious for forcing turnovers. I do not foresee the turnover battle being so one-sided this time around, but it will no doubt play a crucial role, particularity late in the game. The 49ers’ defense has been great at forcing turnovers this year, which has become a huge weapon given the offense’s perfect track record scoring after turnovers. If they can force Wilson to make poor decisions, it could prove the difference in this game.

Special Teams: This will be a good game for LaMichael James to go full on Kyle-Williams-fair-catchathon. Seattle has excellent special teams, and it would probably be best to play things safe rather than risk any special teams turnovers.

Rivalry: A final note on the rivalry… Just like the last game, the hype around this matchup has been ridiculous. It doesn’t have the playoff implications that everyone predicted before the season, but it still has the feel of a huge game. That said, nothing about the week 2 or the games before it have inspired me to look at the Seahawks as a rival. They are a big challenge to the 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes, sure, but the stupidity of both fanbases only reinforces my opinion that the ‘rivalry’ is just a big, overhyped, profit-push by the NFL, ESPN and anyone else that stands to gain from fan fervor. If this becomes a long term rivalry, fine, but fans of both teams need to chill out. Its getting embarrassing for everyone.

Injuries Remain 2013 49ers’ Biggest Problem

Carlos Avila Gonzalez

Carlos Avila Gonzalez

The 49ers move into week 13 with a very different team than the one that started the season against Green Bay. Although they sit at 8-4, this 49ers team, at least until this point, has felt less impressive than the last two seasons. Every week, bloggers, pundits and reporters uncork new theories on what has brought on the inconsistencies and failures that have led to the 49ers four losses. Poor play calling, lackluster performance from Colin Kaepernick and a run and pass game woefully out of synch with one another have been popular responses, but they all allude to something that began long before the season started: injuries and absences.

In 2011-12, the 49ers enjoyed two largely injury-free seasons, only ruling players out 13 and 16 times, respectively. This season, players have been ruled out of games 68 times. A large chunk of this is due to inert players; players like Marcus Lattimore and Tank Carradine were not meant to play this season, but take up roster space. Taking those players off the totals, the number is reduced to 32, which is still essentially double what it was the last couple of years. Of these 32, 14 games have been missed by Pro Bowlers, including Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Mike Iupati.

Looking over these numbers, it is interesting to see what has worked thus far for the team, and what has fallen flat. The most questionable position groups after 2012 were wide receivers and the secondary, both of which were hit hard by injury and free agency. Cornerback Chris Culliver was injured before the season started, which, coupled with Dashon Goldson’s departure, left the 49ers pass defense in a tough spot. They turned to Nnamdi Asomugha, who was underwhelming and eventually got injured himself, and Eric Reid, who has been an excellent replacement for Goldson. Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright stepped up in Asomugha’s (and later Tarrell Brown’s) absence, and won starting jobs. This has been the story with the defense thus far; Corey Lemonier was a solid fill-in for Aldon Smith, Dan Skuta and Michael Wilhoite did a great job filling in for Willis, Tony Jerrod-Eddie has subbed a limited Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey has filled the gap at nose tackle after Ian Williams’ injury. Most injuries have been ably handled by the 49ers’ defensive depth, allowing Vic Fangio to scheme at will.

The offense has been another story. Mario Manningham and Crabtree were absent to begin the season, and rookie hype-beneficiary Quinton Patton injured his foot during week 4. With Kyle Williams lacking any perceptible receiving talent, wideout depth was reduced to Jonathan Baldwin and Anquan Boldin. However, the most significant offensive injury was Vernon Davis, who left two games early (Seattle and Carolina) and missed play against Indianapolis. The 49ers were outscored in those three games by a combined score of 66-19, lacking both Davis’ abilities as a receiver and his role as a premier run blocker. With rookie Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek as the only backup tight ends, Greg Roman found himself limited in what kind of plans he could draw up against elite defenses.

The 49ers’ shortcomings this season are complex, and no member of the team or coaching staff is above blame. However, the most consistent factor weighing the 49ers down has been injuries and absences. Even players like Justin Smith and Frank Gore, who haven’t missed a game, have been limited in what they can do both in practice and on the field. Injuries can also steal the momentum from games; losing players like Davis and Reid mid-game forces the coaching staff to improvise and changes the flow of play on the field. As players like Manningham, Smith and Crabtree return, their impact will be felt. The most consistent threat to the team this season hasn’t been their NFC West rivals, but the weekly injuries which limit them immensely.