As the 49ers enter the home stretch, the story of their season sharpens into focus. Years hence, Niner fans may well remember 2013 as a season of maddening consistency. In short, the Prospectors beat inferior teams and lose to elite squads. And they do so despite injuries, a quirky schedule, and Colin Kaepernick's ongoing travails.
49er losses so far this season: Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina, New Orleans. Two losses at home, and two on the road, but all to better teams at the time they played. Because of regression, injuries, and other attrition, Indy has since stalled into a slight decline, but they can still boast hallmark victories over the Broncos and Seahawks. Actually, I'm not convinced that the Colts were ever an appreciably better team than San Francisco in 2013, even back in September. Then, the 49ers had stumbled somewhat into the doldrums following two high-profile contests against Green Bay and Seattle, and the shock of realizing that they didn't belong on the same field as the Seahawks, especially that field called CenturyLink. Still, you have to give Indianapolis their early-season due.
This past Monday, New Orleans experienced that same shock-of-the-blue in Seattle, and now we'll see how the Saints respond. When a team gets shellacked that thoroughly, it has to affect the players' psyches, no matter what they say, tweet, or think they think. Onetime crystal-clear fantasies of Super Bowl supremacy fuzz over when one reluctantly realizes that the path must likely pass through Pacific Northwest mist. Now, New Orleans must short-week gather themselves for the first of two late-season encounters with the Carolina Panthers. Should one of these two teams sweep the other, the loser will fall far back into the wild-card scramble, with both holding the head-to-head tiebreakers over the 49ers.
Not only do the Niners have long odds of winning the NFC West, but they still have plenty of work ahead to even make the playoffs, with both the Cowboys and Eagles now seemingly capable of year-end runs, not to mention the Cards, whose December 22nd game against Seattle may postdate the Seahawks having already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and thus not needing to play their starters. So, no, a 49er victory this Sunday over the Seahawks will not in itself win the NFC West, but it still has multiple future wild-card implications.
It is no small accomplishment for an NFL squad to beat all the teams they supposedly should beat, and for this the 49ers' coaching staff deserves credit. This kind of nuts-and-bolts, week-to-week consistency can easily go overlooked and underappreciated. Harbaugh and his cohorts excel at this sort of fundamentals stuff, most glaringly noticed by its simple lack, when teams without it look lost, and players flummoxed. Seldom do the 49ers lay an outright egg. Seldom do they come out flat. Seldom do they get blown out. Seldom do they face minimal odds of winning. Except, of course, in Seattle. As 2013 football fate dictates, the best team in the NFL this year resides in the very same division as the 49ers.
Can anyone this season again beat the indomitable Seahawks? Can the 49ers? Of course. Seattle comes into this meeting fresh off a national-spotlight humiliation of the mighty Saints, who themselves beat the 49ers just a few weeks back. So far have the 49ers fallen behind the Seahawks, in terms of excellence, that one might ordinarily regard Sunday's contest as a possible trap game for the Hawks, coming as it does against an inferior opponent. However, such a surmise disregards the roisterous rivalry between the two clubs. Coach Carroll and his shrieking flock of dirty birds do not want to lose to the ground-bound Niners, ever, not even were the 49ers winless.
All the better for the 49ers. The Red-and-Gold must sooner or later disrupt this consistency before it becomes overly confining, or even definitive. Better that the Prospectors self-reliantly break out on the upside against a worthy foe, than on the downside against a diminished one. In other words, the 49ers need a statement game, both for themselves and others, that proves they merit consideration once more as a force-to-be-reckoned-with outfit. The Seahawks provide just such an opponent. Win or lose, the 49ers must play them boot-to-claw, and show the world that the Seahawks may not, yes even so soon as this season, soar blithely into the Super Bowl unchallenged.
Another reason to relish the upcoming bout: the Seahawks, so superb, well-balanced, and well-coached, will undoubtedly hold the mirror up to 49er shortcomings, and reveal, even to those who sometimes prefer not to look, every minute flaw. Games against great teams, particularly divisional foes, have a way of sharpening the focus of off-season to-do lists, and it's not too early for the 49ers to begin some organizational soul-searching.
For instance, the 49ers have of late, in a welcome development, instituted a defensive line rotation. But, while Dobbs and Jerod-Eddie make good hustle plays in pursuit, with Jerod-Eddie even earning gushes from Jon Gruden during the Washington game, both lack ballast at the point of attack, and offenses have gained some purchase running against them. Don't think the Seahawks haven't noticed. These d-linemen need to earn the coaches' confidence not only against run-of-the-mill opponents, but against top-tier ones. Otherwise the new-found depth may get tossed like dross from the sluice box, with the Niners devolving back into their familiar wear-out-the-starters mode. Likewise, the 49ers may learn considerably more about the offensive line backups and reshuffles, who did play fairly well against a stout Rams' front. (Boone has perhaps leveraged himself into priority re-signing status.)
But every 49er fan already knows the main reason the Seahawks currently overshadow the 49ers: the difference in quarterback play. Russell Wilson has indubitably ascended a steeper learning curve than has his Niner counterpart, Colin Kaepernick. Much of Kaepernick's value still inheres in his potential; Russell Wilson plays championship football now. Kaepernick's on-field performance has perked up lately, and his Seattle outing may help mark his recent improvements as either the beginnings of a welcome trend or as (gasp, ye faithful) false-hope aberrations. Again, for the 49ers to truly regain status as genuine Super Bowl contenders, their starting quarterback must play well not just against merely very good teams, but against elite ones.
Expect the 49ers, despite injuries, gridiron hobgoblins, and the indefatigable karma of Chuck Knox, to play inspired football. Whether that will be enough to win we will soon find out. Either way, odds favor the 49ers sooner or later breaking from their solid season-long consistency. They still remain, after all the injuries, dubious calls, head-shakers and teeth-gnashers, within reasonable striking distance of regaining elite status, with a marvelous defense and laudatory special teams. Let's hope they break out on the upside, rather than the down.