After a heartbreaking loss to the New Orleans Saints, the San Francisco 49ers are currently at risk of missing the playoffs. For the moment at least, the Niners have the same record as the Arizona Cardinals, who have won three games in a row while San Francisco has dropped two straight after pummeling the pathetic Jaguars in London. And let that sink in for a moment—after 11 weeks of professional football, the reigning NFC champions find themselves with the same record as a team helmed by Carson Palmer.
There are plenty of reasons the 49ers find themselves in this position—Dylan DeSimone argues that injuries and inconsistency are taking their toll, Michael Schottey takes his shots at Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh, and the front office, and others, including me, have set their sights on Greg Roman's bullheaded play-calling and inability to adapt to the realities occurring on the field in front of him.
Greg Roman going from top HC candidate to thin ice as #49ers OC.— Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) November 17, 2013
Knowing that I will do little more than repeat my tired old mantras by attempting any kind of analytical critique of Kaepernick's struggles, Roman's uncreative approach, and Harbaugh's role in the 49ers' recent woes, I'm going to try my best to shy away from all the doom and gloom. Yes, I'd really like to have that questionable call against Ahmad Books taken back—maybe the 49ers would have triumphed, and maybe not. But there's no changing any of that now, the only thing left to do is look forward.
After the last two brutal losses, one could be forgiven looking at the final six games in a pessimistic light, and perhaps that's the best way to look at the remain chunk of the schedule.
Even the most negative of 49ers fans—the ones still too beat up inside about Sunday's loss to even begin thinking of it in more rational, logical terms—have to admit that the matchup against Washington could be a perfect stage to bounce back on. Washington's defense is an ugly, tangled mess—26th in passing yards allowed and 19th in rushing yards allowed, according to ESPN. As San Francisco's five game winning streak proved, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman at least know how to exploit bad defenses.
RGIII and company may boast one of the best rushing attacks in the league, but as the 49ers defense is all but blameless for the last two losses this shouldn't prove anything more than an intriguing challenge to Vic Fangio's unit.
It's also been a little while since the Niners were featured in prime time—and what better way to calm the fanbase's nerves and send a message to the NFL than to humiliate a franchise once thought to be locked in to win the NFC East? And who knows, Crabtree may be back for this one.
Even the San Francisco faithful that think Kaepernick needs to be benched or traded will probably concede that the 49ers can win this one, putting the team at 7-4.
What strange beasts these Rams are—almost beating the Seattle Seahawks with a journeyman backup quarterback, losing a close one to an equally baffling Tennessee Titans squad (who also had a close game with the Seahawks), and then blowing out the Indianapolis Colts.
Zac Stacy is a frightening young back, capable of doing some serious damage, even against that stout defensive unit in Seattle. And let us not forget that the 49ers lost to and tied with the Rams last year, so this is not a team to be taken lightly, even with Sam Bradford out for the year.
That said, unless Zac Stacy and Tavon Austin are allowed to run loose—and all respect to the Colts, but I just don't see the San Francisco defense repeating their mistakes and allowing this to happen enough to cost us the game—I think this is another one for the W column. It may not be a blowout, and I would wager there could even be a scare here or there, but I see the defense keeping the Rams in check enough to allow even a rattled and inconsistent Kaepernick to put some numbers up on the scoreboard, guiding the team to an 8-4 record.
But I hear some dissenting cries from the back of the room. Yes, the Rams humiliated former Harbaugh prodigy and current NFL golden boy Andrew Luck. This is the NFL—weird things happen. If the Buccaneers would have beaten the Seahawks at home—which would have been both helpful and hilarious—that still would not make Tampa Bay a good team, just a lucky one. The Rams may have some of the pieces necessary for people to start reevaluating their lowly opinion of the team, but I don't see that happening quite yet.
The 49ers lost by 1 point and 3 points to the 1st and 5th overall defenses in the league respectively, according to Pro Football Reference; the Rams clock in at 14th and have allowed 234 points on the year, just a few shy of the league average of 236.9. If a slumping Kaepernick can't get it done, Frank Gore will—St. Louis only has the 18th ranked rushing defense, according to ESPN.
Hey, at least we got two wins in before this loss, right?
8-5 isn't pretty, but there's no reason to abandon all hope. Remember, the Ravens snuck into the playoffs at 10-6 last year.
I'd stock up on beer and comfort food for this game, however. If you have any friends in Seattle, ignore their calls and texts, especially after the game. This will likely be an ugly enough day, no need to entertain the playful taunting of people drunk on success and winning. And if you somehow accidentally answer the phone when a Seahawks fan calls, tell them you're putting all your money on the Broncos in the Super Bowl and you're glad the Supersonics never found their way home, and then promptly hang up.
It was pretty hilarious watching the highlights of the Tampa Bay-Atlanta game. What exactly happened to the Atlanta Falcons? I imagine it has to involve black magic, animal sacrifice, and a dedicated, yet shadowy legion of Saints fans.
In any case, San Francisco may be struggling, but they're certainly not the Falcons, and I can't see the Buccaneers' offense making much of a dent against the the 49ers' formidable defense.
Tony Gonzalez will likely have retired again and be working on his debut novel on a beach somewhere, and any Falcons still bothering to show up to work at this point will put up some fight, but not enough—the team has the 4th worst overall defense and the 3rd worst rushing defense. The lackluster San Francisco offense may not blow out the floundering Falcons, but they'll put points on the board, and the defense should keep Matt Ryan from doing anything terribly dangerous.
Before this matchup, the Cardinals will have played and lost to the Colts and the Seahawks, and struggled against the Eagles, Rams, and Titans, putting Arizona at a slightly optimistic 9-6. (The entire feel of this game changes if the Cardinals keep pace with the 49ers, and I'm sure plenty will be written at the time if this proves to be the case. I'm not going to entertain that doomsday scenario here—it's too awful, too terrible to contemplate.)
In any case, this looks set to be a must win game for the San Francisco 49ers. 11-5 should all but guarantee a chance for a postseason. If the team loses, they will have to hope that 10-6 will be enough for a Wild Card spot, especially with how things are playing out in the NFC North.
Even with a healthy dose of pessimism, the 49ers are more than capable of coming up with an 11-5 record and earning a Wild Card spot. They may limp in as the 6th seed, almost guaranteeing a trip to CenturyLink (and perhaps a third kicking of the year at the hands of the Seahawks), but as I said before, this is the NFL—anything can happen. The Ravens were meant to get their heads caved in by the awe-inspiring Broncos last year, remember?
Given the fact that the schedule isn't too terrible down the stretch (save for the Seattle game), perhaps Harbaugh and Roman will feel more confident trying out some new things on offense against the likes of Washington, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta. And year after year, the talking heads keep telling us it's not always the record or the ranking of the team in the playoffs, but who gets hot down the stretch—just look at the Giants' and the Ravens' recent Super Bowl appearances—and there's a good chance the Niners go 5-1 in the last six games. That's at least warm.
Despite the recent stumbles, San Francisco is a good team. The losses suffered are to some of the best teams in the NFL at the moment—the Carolina Panthers beat the New England Patriots last night, taking some of the sting out of the loss a few weeks ago, and there's no denying the talent and potency of the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints, or the fact that the Colts took down the Broncos and Seahawks in addition to roughing up the 49ers.
Even through the glass darkly, there is still some reason to hope.