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The 33-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has me thinking about where this team came from and where they are now. Sure, the 49ers are close to securing a Wild Card berth in the NFC. Maybe more importantly, the team could be hitting it's stride when it's most crucial to do so. Overall, the defense was dominant again and the offense did enough to win. If that sounds familiar, it's because that's been the story for the last three, very successful regular seasons. You expect that 49ers to win now, some how pulling out games whether it's ugly or not. It wasn't always that way, and one person has been an enormous factor in turning it all around. Here's what 49ers fans are talking about after Week 15.
From 1983 through 1998, the 49ers won at least 10 games in each season. The 16 year run is an NFL record and a true testament to the winning machine Bill Walsh built in San Francisco. But things got ugly after the '98 season. San Francisco, the NFL's model franchise, would go on to have losing seasons in nine of the next 12 years and only win 10 or more games twice during that span (2001-2002). It got especially bad after Steve Mariucci was fired following the 2002 campaign. Under Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary, the team would go 46-82 over eight long seasons (actually 45-82 because one of those wins belongs to Jim Tomsula).
Considering where the 49ers came from, where they went, and where they are now only makes Jim Harbaugh looks that much better. Since taking over a team that managed to finish 36 games under .500 over eight years, Harbaugh has gone 34-11-1 in 46 regular season games. That's only 11 less wins than Erickson, Nolan, and Singletary managed to get in five fewer seasons.
Barring a monumental collapse of some kind, Harbaugh will lead his team into the playoffs for the third straight year. That's a feat the 49ers have not accomplished since the George Seifert days. Harbaugh has won two division titles, three playoff games, appeared in two NFC Championships and a Super Bowl. He has proven to be the missing piece for an organization that has had talent over the last half decade or so, but could never put it all together until he arrived. For all of the complaining and worry about the 49ers this season, they are still a double digit win team that has a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. As long as Harbaugh is at the helm, there is no reason to think that will change any time soon.
Vernon was targeted seven times. What does that mean?
Vernon Davis has played in 13 of the 14 games so far this season. When he was out with an injury in Week 3, the 49ers were only able to manage seven points and gain 139 yards in total passing. In the 13 games in which is has played, the degree to which the team has featured him has greatly impacted it's offensive performance. In games Davis has been targeted more than five times, the 49ers are 6-0 and are averaging about 32 points per game. Davis, himself, has 577 yards and seven touchdowns in those six contests. In the other seven games, Davis has been targeted five times or less and the team is 4-3 while averaging only 22 points per game. Davis only has 228 yards.
Gore's getting close
With 86 yards in Week 15, Frank Gore brought his total to 1,017 for the season. It's the seventh time in his nine year career that he's broken the 1,000 yard mark. He failed to do so in 2005 when, as a rookie, he only received 127 carries and in 2010 when injuries limited him to 11 games.
Gore is also coming close to achieving something that only 28 other players in NFL history have, 10,000 career rushing yards. Gore currently ranks 30th on the all time list with 9,856. He needs 144 yards over the next two games to hit the mark this season. Gore has one year remaining on his contract with the 49ers. There was some talk in the offseason that if Gore showed signs of slowing down, he might be released by the team. Given how well he's played in 2013, it would be surprising if the 49ers let him go at this point. If healthy, Gore should continue to climb up the list and make a serious case for the Hall of Fame.
All's well that ends well, but...
It had the feeling of a 49ers' blow out but, in reality, the game was within a touchdown in the fourth quarter (20-14). When you consider that San Francisco won the time of possession battle 39:50 to 20:10 and out gained Tampa Bay 376 yards to 183, the fact that it was so close late is worrisome. The main reason for this is that the 49ers continue to struggle finishing off drives.
The tally of 33 points is misleading. The Niners only managed two offensive touchdowns on a day when they should have had four or five. Instead, they again settled for field goals (four of them) and were lucky to get a special teams score when Tampa Bay muffed a kick off. Considering the 49ers came into Week 15 only allowing 13.5 points per game over their last six, and Tampa Bay was 30th in the league in scoring, settling for three points was able to do the job. However, San Francisco has to start being more aggressive in the red zone and taking some shots rather than relying on Phil Dawson. Eventually, it's going to come back and bite them.
While there is still a possibility that the NFC Championship game could go through San Francisco, in all likelihood we will be saying goodbye to the 'Stick in Week 16. What looked like a big matchup when the schedule was released should now be a fairly easy win as the Atlanta Falcons are beat up and limping towards a possible last place finish in the NFC South. Given the importance of the game and emotion that will go along with the evening, the Niners should provide a strong showing in Week 16.