It's late December and it's time to start thinking about playoff football, in case you haven't been already. In Week 17, the San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) are coming off a loss, preparing to face their NFC West rival, the Arizona Cardinals.
With a win on Sunday, as well as one from the Vikings over the Packers, the 49ers can clinch the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the NFC.
The Niners had a bye last year, including home field advantage. San Francisco is going to need all the help they can get, as they'll look to best position themselves for this year's postseason run. They have a number of obstacles standing in their way outside the teams on their schedule.
Offensive Play Calling
One of San Francisco’s greatest strengths is also one of their biggest weaknesses. Throughout the course of the season, the 49ers offensive play calling has earned high praise. Their creativity and ingenuity on that side of the ball has been proficient, unique and exciting all at the same time.
But on a few occasions, it has drawn the ire of the fans and confusion of commentators everywhere.
Although Jim Harbaugh has veto power, the play calling responsibilities are left to Greg Roman. This season there has been inconsistency – particularly every third game – and frankly some baffling decisions being made at some points.
Most recently, Frank Gore getting only six carries against Seattle comes to mind.
This is one of a few primary concerns as the 49ers look forward to the postseason. Every time they’ve come out flat, they have been handed a non-win. The play calling becomes unbalanced, untimely and unproductive, and so far, there has been no fixing it during games.
This could be a major pitfall for the Niners to look out for.
Unfortunately, the reality once again is that injuries could hurt the Niners in the postseason.
In what was perhaps the team’s toughest hit this season, the 49ers found out defensive lineman Justin Smith has a partially torn tricep. In game without him, the 49ers got steamrolled, and the defense just didn’t look the same.
They got hammered in the trenches, which is usually one of their greatest strengths. And while the team is hopeful he will return for the postseason, he will not be 100-percent. This is a huge blow to the 49ers and Smith, 33, who are trying to win a championship this year.
On the offensive side of the ball, the 49ers lost WR Mario Manningham, WR Kyle Williams and RB Kendall Hunter with season-ending injuries. Unlike Justin Smith, not one of them has a chance to return for the postseason.
San Francisco was faced with this problem a year ago. They did not have enough depth on the offensive side of the ball and it caused them to lack dimensions as a football team. They were not threatening enough and proved to be easily defensible.
This could wind up being a real issue for the 49ers in the postseason.
49ers DT Justin Smith had bone spur attached to his triceps tendon that became detached in his left elbow. Still a chance he can play.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) December 27, 2012
Playing from Behind
Unlike Brady’s Patriots, Rodgers’ Packers or even Luck’s Colts, the 49ers have struggled when playing from behind. The team has been without an established signal-caller for some time, and are in the midst of an organizational change in 2012.
With Colin Kaepernick now starting, this will hopefully become less of a problem. But the team has not yet proved they can be clutch. They do not do well as a unit when trailing. And it doesn’t all fall on the quarterback’s shoulders; this ties into play calling, execution and identity.
It also doesn’t help that the 49ers defense gets worn out.
The problem with San Francisco playing from behind is that they get panicked into a different style of play – mostly on the offensive side. They are quick to abandon the run, which does not play to their strengths, considering they are a notorious smash mouth football team.
The offensive line wants to grind games out, get physical and let Frank Gore earn his dollars. They also know that when the ground game is rolling, it makes the passing game that much more fluid.
When the 49ers play from behind, they typically fall apart.
San Francisco is no different from any other team in the league, in that they have identifiable weaknesses. The hope is that the 49ers can self-analyze and correct these flaws with a certain single-elimination tournament on the horizon.
The Niners do not want to be the team that gets in their own way. While injuries are pretty unavoidable, the 49ers can make sure they play sharp in other facets to make up for it. It will be a long road to the Super Bowl, so San Francisco better put their best foot forward.