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After what can only be described as the strangest week that 49erland has seen in a long time, we are bringing you a very special Week 11 installment of Upon Further Review. Since games end in a tie about once every bazillion years or so, this has been an odd week indeed. Fans are up in arms about everything from the 49ers sometimes good/sometimes bad defense, who the 49ers starting QB will be going forward even whether or not the 2012 49ers are a team still capable of making the playoffs. This is definitely not the way things were supposed to shake out right? That depends on who you ask.
Given the growing divide between the optimists and the doomsayers of 49erland, this week, we'll be doing a Fact or Fiction breakdown of the current state of the 49ers as well as our picks for the week.
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Fact or Fiction: If Alex Smith remained in Sunday's game, the 49ers would have beaten the Rams
AJ: FACT. At the time he left the game, Smith had just found his stride, having completed 7 of his 8 passes for 71 yards (8.87 YPA) and a TD.
Detractors will shout from the rooftops that Smith is a game manager. They will say that Smith is not elite. They will say that the 49ers could do better and none of that matters. Elite or not, Smith finds ways to win football games. It isn't always pretty, but if the 49ers play their brand of football and allow Smith to be himself, the team comes away with a win.
At the time that he was forced to leave the game, momentum had swung back in the 49ers direction. Another series resembling the 49ers' first scoring drive might have changed the complexion of the game going into halftime and that would likely have resulted in a 49er victory.
Diego: FACT. It is the very first 49ers possession without Smith that makes a huge difference in the game. After Frank Gore picked up a first down on a 7-yard run, Colin Kaepernick threw the ball off play-action to Vernon Davis, who was open running away from James Laurinaitis ... he missed him badly. Two plays later on an obvious passing situation (3rd & 10), Kyle Williams ran a seam route from the slot getting open right away as no Rams defender noticed him ... and neither did Kaepernick, who instead held onto the ball for way too long and eventually connected with Kendall Hunter for what would had resulted on a first down, except that Jonathan Goodwin committed a holding penalty. The pass to a wide open Williams would had been made before Goodwin committed the penalty.
Those are plays/throws I believe Smith makes, which would had continued the momentum the Smith-led offense had created on the previous drive, would had tied the game before the half, and therefore most likely ends up resulting in a 49er victory.
Fact or Fiction: The 49er defense is on the decline
AJ: FICTON. Headed into Sunday's game, the 49ers had the best defense in football. Regardless of last week's outcome, that is still the case. This defense is great. But it is also very thin. Especially in the middle. Experts will prattle on endlessly about the decline of the 49er defense but it's less about decline than it is fatigue.
In any 3-4 defense, everything starts with the man in the middle. When the NT wears down, fails to eat up blocks, or gets taken out of the play, the rest of the defense is put on its heels. On Sunday, Isaac Sopoaga was less than stellar. The result was simple the defense was less than stellar, too.
The aforementioned noted, none of that would have mattered if the Rams had been called to task on their first scoring play. Have you wondered how Quick got so wide open on that first scoring pass? I did so I watched the play again. And again. And again. On the play, Quick reached out, grabbed Chris Culliver's facemask and yanked him to the ground. In any era, that should have been a penalty and if it's called, the entire complexion of the first quarter is changed.
But all of the above is water under the bridge. This defense is still very good. They'll learn from their mistakes. They'll return to form. And before this season is over, they'll get another crack at the Rams. One thing is for sure I've got that date circled on my calendar.
Diego: FICTION. The 49ers' three losses do not consistently tell you that this defense is on the decline. Christian Ponder had the game of his life on week 3, and sometimes when you run into that there's not much you can do. That loss however, was aided by three 49ers' turnovers, much like the loss against the Giants was nearly a direct result of the three Smith interceptions. Last week versus the Rams, St. Louis was simply more ready for the game than the 49ers were. That's more a reflection of the coaching staff than of the defense, which still ranks 3th in yards per game (5th in passing, 7th in rushing), and 1st in points per game (14.1). The defense also ranks 4th in first downs given up and 3rd in third down percentage.
Finally there is this: in the 49ers' six wins, the defense is giving up 8.83 points per game. Yes, three of those wins (Jets, Seahawks, Cardinals) were against bottom-10 teams in the league, but giving up points against those teams would be more of an indication of this unit being on the decline than how they have performed so far. The real face of this defense will show in road games against the Saints and the Patriots, two of the top scoring teams in the league. I am certain that the coaching staff will be fully prepared for those games. Let's reassess this question after those games.
Fact or Fiction: The 2012 49ers will make the playoffs
AJ: FACT (kind of, anyway). The 49ers are a very good football team. The 49ers are the best team in their division. Without question, they will make the playoffs (if Alex Smith recovers from his concussion and starts the rest of this season's games).
There are areas of concern for this team, no doubt. There is plenty for this team to improve upon. Over the next 7 games, the 49ers have an opportunity to iron out their special teams' inconsistency, straighten out their defensive lapses, and really tighten the screws on offense. All of the aforementioned is possible. All of the building blocks are there.
Even after Sunday's tie, the 49ers have the league's 11th ranked offense, 3rd ranked defense and are in sole possession of 1st place in their division. What MUST happen for this team to get to the playoffs and win in the playoffs is not rocket science. The 49ers MUST stick to their brand of football. They must be steady, efficient and patient. When the 49ers stick to their brand of football, they are incredibly difficult to beat. If they stick to their brad of football, they will make some noise in the playoffs.
Diego: FACT. Even if I can possibly see three more losses in the 49ers remaining schedule, Seattle is such a god-awful team on the road that they will have more than five losses at the end of the year, which will allow San Francisco to win the division. But I won't lie, I typed FACT at the beginning of this answer, then I erased it and typed FICTION after analyzing it some more, then I settled for FACT again after considering Seattle's road struggles. So yes, my answer isn't solely based on the 49ers' ability to run away with the division, and this team cannot afford any more hiccups the rest of the way. San Francisco needs to beat inferior opponents and compete/win against the big teams in the conference such as the Bears and Saints. In the unlikely scenario that the 49ers find themselves vying for a wildcard berth, they are already on the wrong side of the tie-breaker against Minnesota, so they can't afford to be on the same position against Chicago and/or New Orleans.
It wouldn't hurt for the special teams to start contributing. Besides ranking second to last in opponents' average kickoff returns, they have yet to score a return touchdown on either kickoffs or punts, and then of course there are David Akers' struggles, which we can only hope are temporary.
Fact or Fiction: If Kaepernick starts, the 49ers will beat the Bears on Monday Night
AJ: FICTION. I can hear the booing already. Look, before any of you show up at my house to lynch me, just hear me out.
Colin Kaepernick was surprisingly good last weekend but not that good. For all of the fanfare surrounding his impressive TD run, many seemed to forget that he failed to throw a TD pass. Also lost in the shuffle is the fact that he was running with a very abbreviated playbook.
Kaepernick is probably going to be a very good NFL QB. He has the athleticism, speed and arm strength to make a difference but not yet. He needs to work on his mechanics. He needs to improve his footwork. He needs to get more comfortable taking snaps from under center. He needs to learn to see the field a little better. In short, he needs to become a better QB. I believe he will but he just isn't there yet.
Diego: FACT. Kaepernick was shaky right after coming into the game in the second quarter, and he only led one possession in the third quarter (granted, a three-and-out), but on the very next drive he went 5 for 5 for 67 yards, and displayed his athleticism on a 7-yard touchdown run. At the end of the fourth quarter, with just over a minute left and needing a scoring drive to keep the team, he again delivered in the air and on the ground paving the way for Akers' 33-yard field goal. In overtime, he made positive plays when called upon and put the team in a position to win the game.
That was all with minor preparation for that game. After early jitters, Kaepernick displayed the coolness and poise you would want from a backup quarterback and possible signal-caller of the future. With a full week of preparation, even against one of the top defenses in the league, I believe Kaepernick can execute a game plan that would lead this team to a win. The Bears' offense, after all, doesn't present an explosive offense that would force Kaepernick to put the team on his shoulders in order to win the game.
Week 11 Picks
In Week 10, AJ went a middling 9 for 14 (.642) which means that he basically blew it out his butt last week almost as bad as the 49ers did. By way of comparison, Diego had a hell of week going 12 for 14, and 2 for 2 in those games where he and AJ did not agree.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like there is much disagreement this week:
Dolphins at Bills:
AJ: The Dolphins were shredded by the Titans last week. A beating like that is going to stay with a team as young as this one. Home field advantage will carry the day. Bills.
Diego: With Fred Jackson out for this game, CJ Spiller finally gets to carry the load again. Even if the Dolphins' run defense is one of the best in the league, they will be playing on short rest against the league's leading runner in yards per carry. Oh, and Ryan Fitzpatrick is averaging three touchdown passes per game at home. Bills.
Browns at Cowboys:
AJ: Even a guy as good at failure as Tony Romo won't be able to screw this one up. Cowboys.
Diego: The funny thing is that if this game ended in a tie, I wouldn't be shocked at all. But since I need to pick a winner Cowboys.
Cardinals at Falcons:
AJ: The Falcons are coming off of a tough loss to the Saints and the Cardinals "are who we thought they were." Falcons.
Diego: Look for the Falcons to get right back on track against a Cardinals' team that will be completely outmatched on both sides of the ball. Falcons.
Jaguars at Texans:
AJ: The Texans beat the bejeezus out of the Bears last week. The Jags are in for it. Big time. Texans.
Diego: AJ, stop it, they did not beat the "bejeezus" out of the Bears, but they will most likely do that to Jacksonville this week. Texans.
Packers at Lions:
AJ: The Packers seem to be finding their stride and the Lions seem to be finding a new way to lose every week. Packers.
Diego: You know, I won't be shocked if the Lions go on a five-game losing streak before they win another game Packers.
Chargers at Broncos:
AJ: Phillip Rivers almost got his team a win last week but then he remembered to throw his weekly ration of interceptions. Look for that trend to continue in Denver. Broncos.
Diego: These two teams could not be going in much different directions. Since scoring 35 straight points to win IN Denver on Monday Night Football four weeks ago, the Broncos have yet to lose. Broncos.
Ravens at Steelers:
AJ: The Steelers have been finding ways to win in spite of their growing list of injuries but it will take more than heart to beat a better team, even at home. Ravens.
Diego: Raise your hand if you believe Byron Leftwich will carry Pittsburgh to a win against Baltimore. Yeah, me neither. Ravens.
Bengals at Chiefs:
AJ: Right now, the Chiefs couldn't win a game of Tic-Tac-Toe. Arrowhead is a tough place to play but only if the home team can actually field an offense. Bengals.
Diego: The Chiefs have a shot at this if Jamaal Charles has a breakout game and/or if their defense/special teams puts up some points, but I'm going to go with the Dalton-to-Green combo. Bengals.
Buccaneers at Panthers:
AJ: Cam Newton has repeatedly disappointed this season. Somehow, some way, he'll figure out how to lose this game. Bucs.
Diego: Tampa Bay has scored 35 or more points in five straight games, mostly against some pretty bad defenses, which is about where the Panthers' defense is at right now. Bucs.
Eagles at Redskins:
AJ: In addition to being beat up, it is becoming painfully evident that the Eagles just aren't a very good football team. Redskins.
Diego: I'm slowly coming to the realization that AJ and I may not be disagreeing much this week Redskins.
Jets at Rams:
AJ: The Jets are on the road. Need I continue? Rams.
Diego: Look for St. Louis to push Rex Ryan closer to being out of this misery. Rams.
Saints at Raiders:
AJ: The Saints are beginning to find their feet. The Raiders are still trying to figure out how to tie their cleats. Saints.
Diego: If you are a Raiders' fan, I guess anything is possible, right? BREAKING NEWS: I'm not a Raiders' fan. Saints.
Colts at Patriots:
AJ: The Colts are really surprising this season. I fully expect them to be a surprise playoff participant this season but I don't think they have the juice to win at Foxboro. Patriots.
Diego: Agreed (Ugh). Andrew Luck's crew is way better than we thought they would be this season, but as a team they are not ready to compete with the big boys. Patriots.
Bears at 49ers:
AJ: The 49ers are coming off of what has to be one of their most disappointing performances this season and in the Harbaugh era, the 49ers have never dropped the ball in consecutive weeks. If Smith gets the start, the 49ers get the win. 49ers.
Diego: I've been saying it for a few weeks now: if the Bears' defense doesn't score, their offense cannot carry them to a win, especially with Jason Campbell under center. San Francisco's offense will be the difference in this game, regardless of whether Smith or Kaepernick gets the call. 49ers.
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