The San Francisco 49ers went into yesterday's match-up against the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park with an 8-4 record, which was good enough to place them among the six teams qualifying to the playoffs in the NFC, but when taking a closer look at their record and the teams that they had played it was difficult to pinpoint a STATEMENT win. Sure, the season/home opener thrilling victory over the Green Bay Packers was all the rage at the time, but San Francisco's offense had significantly regressed since, and while there was not question that the 49ers were one of the NFC's best teams, there were definitely concerns as to whether they could beat the elite teams in the conference come January.
Yesterday's 19-17 victory against the Seahawks eased those concerns.
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The 49ers are getting a clean bill of health, and this has especially been a welcomed addition to Colin Kaepernick's game, with the return of Michael Crabtree opening up the offense to take them closer to the team that went to the Super Bowl last season, and further away from the unit that struggled not just in their losses but during some of their wins this season as well. Matt Millen was on the phone this morning on 95.7 The Game and he mentioned something that is worth repeating: you can easily take the criticisms of this offense from earlier this season and just toss them out of the window, because this is a different offense than what was on display from most of September through November. It was clear yesterday that San Francisco was once again using more two and three wide receiver sets while lowering the number of plays that used "22" personnel. It is no coincidence that the offense is starting to look better each week, although it's still not close to their best. An improved offensive unit to pair with what continues to be one of the top defenses in the NFL adds up to a team that the rest of the NFC does not want to meet in the playoffs.
While winning the NFC West remains an improbable achievement - Seattle, which holds a two-game lead over San Francisco, is likely to win their remaining three games against the Giants, Cardinals, and Rams - San Francisco has a chance to enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the conference by also winning their remaining three games against the Buccaneers, Falcons, and Cardinals. Tampa Bay is now the team that has won four out of their last five games after starting out 0-8, and while their defense will present a challenge (especially at Raymond James Stadium), their offense should have plenty of problems against a Vic Fangio unit that has recently held both the Seahawks (27.5 points/game) and New Orleans Saints (26.4) to 20 points or less. The Buccaneers are averaging 24 points/game over their last five games, and 28.5 in their four victories over that stretch, but were held to just six points in their week 13 loss against a team with a defense similar to San Francisco's - the Panthers'. As far as the Falcons' game goes - putting aside the fact that Atlanta has been a disappointment all year long - the 49ers are as much of a lock to win their last regular season game at The Stick as the Saints were to win their first game at the Superdome after Katrina. The emotion that will come with the moment will have San Francisco ready to rock the stadium in a way that it has never felt before (coincidentally, the Falcons were the opponent back when the Saints returned home in 2006.) Finally, a week 17 match-up in Arizona against the Cardinals may present the biggest challenge San Francisco has left in the regular season, but the 49ers are a bad match-up for a turnover-prone QB and an offensive line that fails to protect him, and history tells us that Michael Crabtree owns Patrick Peterson, which should help San Francisco's offense put up enough points against a very good Arizona defense. If San Francisco can take care of business these next three weeks, they will be riding a six-game winning streak into the playoffs.
A healthy, complete 49ers roster has helped Jim Harbaugh's team start their second winning streak of the season, a streak that has the chance to run until the end of the season, and possibly through the playoffs on the way to a Vince Lombardi Trophy. After all, the last three Super Bowl winners have been teams that worked their way to the top from the wildcard round (Green Bay Packers in 2010, New York Giants in 2011, and Baltimore Ravens in 2012). Before yesterday, it would had been difficult to make the case for San Francisco to make such run since they had folded against winning teams four out of five times this season, but after a statement win against the team the possessed the best record in the NFL, and with an emerging offense to go along with an intimidating defense, there is no question that the 49ers are a team that nobody wants to run into in the playoffs.
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