NFL coaches frequently divvy up their schedules into four-game quadrants, handy during a sixteen-game season. Of course, they want to win four games out of every four, but, barring that, a three-and-one record keeps them on track for home-field advantage come post-season. Two-and-two, especially during the first quadrant, causes coaches some consternation, while one-and-three induces them to rethink entirely their game plans and personnel choices. Meanwhile, most coaches whose teams begin the season with four consecutive losses often call their stockbrokers, realtors, and spiritual advisors. For the 2013 regular season, in inverse order, the 49ers first four:
Game 4, at St. Louis.
The Niners fly halfway across the country to play on a short week. This, an important game under any circumstances, becomes a must-win, even this early in the season, should the 49ers enter the game with a losing record. And, should the Red-and-Gold arrive at the gateway-to-the-gold-fields undefeated, they will still intend to prove that, unlike last year, they can actually beat the Rams, and thus establish some semblance of control in their own division. Also, watching the Rams beat the 49ers provides a prototype for other teams to beat them. Fisher and his staff consistently out-coach other outfits. In many games, how the 49ers win or lose matters. In this game, 49er fans might well settle for a victory anyhow, anywhere, and by any legal means possible.
Game 3, vs. Indianapolis.
Lodged between two contests against division rivals, this game bears the trappings of a classic trap game. Coaches, veterans, and well-meaning neighbors can tell young players that "every game is important," but young men sometimes require experiential, as opposed to rational, knowledge before they believe. Indy, although perhaps poised for a reversion-to-the-mean season, could nevertheless, based on their early-season schedule, enter this game frisky, confident, in fine fettle. The 49ers, meanwhile, will have played two NFL powerhouses back to back under intense media scrutiny. Regardless of their record before the contest, it will bode well for the remainder of the season if the 49ers, beyond merely defeating the Colts, dispatch of them in a business-like manner.
Game 2, at Seattle.
Many 49er fans will probably pay scant attention to this game. In fact, since the two co-favorites for NFC dominance will clash on a Sunday night in prime time, most of the 49er faithful will likely find better things to do that evening than to watch this slugfest. Seriously, this game will show, more than even the Green Bay contest, the adjustments that the 49ers' staff has made during the off-season. The 49ers will not just want to beat the high-flying Seahawks, but to smack them down, Boeing-worthy hometown noise notwithstanding. On the other hand, should the Seahawks handle the Niners with ease, cries will arise from the faithful to bring back Alex Smith immediately, 2014 early-round draft choice from K.C. be dashed. If the 2013 season evolves the way we hope, this may be the only game all year that features the 49ers as underdogs. Expect them to respond accordingly, with feral junkyard grit.
Game 1, vs. Green Bay.
Arguably, the 49ers played their two most impressive games of the season last year against Green Bay. Do our boys have the Packers' number? The Packers will desperately want to prove otherwise, and will attempt to use this season opener to launch themselves into a Super-Bowl drive. Green Bay added some genuinely talented running backs during the draft, and, with a revived O-line, will test the Niners' revamped run defense. And, of course, the brilliant Aaron Rodgers and his aerial attack will put the 49ers' new safeties to the task. The Packers will point to this game all off-season, both to beat a chief NFC rival and to secure home-field advantage for a possible future playoff game. Yes, teams with high aspirations think that far ahead. And, by the way, rest assured they have studied up on how to stop Colin Kaepernick. Contain the running Kaep they might, but will they stop the rest of the Niner offense? The 49ers will probably not overly risk their starting QB's health this early in the season. Watch for them to enfold in their attack more wrinkles from other contributors. Finally, should the 49ers beat the Packers methodically in a no-drama game, then, rest of the league, watch out!
The first four games of any NFL season can tell us a great deal about each team's prospects. As the old saying has it, "you can't win the Super Bowl during the first four games, but you can lose it." The 49ers this year play two NFL powerhouses and two possible up-and-comers during that crucial first month, an early slate that will well try the Prospectors' mettle. Expect the team to have their picks and shovels ready, their hats pulled low, and their Levi's hiked up. Not only whether they win or lose, but how the Niners do so, will clue us toward the direction of the remainder of the season. In 2013, particularly, those first four games loom as harbingers.