Monday night's game went off a lot like the script of a Rocky movie. The Rams came out swinging and the 49ers were on the ropes. Then, when all hope seemed lost, Colin Kaepernick landed an overhand right by way of an 80 yard TD strike to Brandon Lloyd with just seconds left in the first half. That strike changed the complexion of the game...and set in motion a series of events that led to yet another 49er victory. When all was said and done, Kaepernick was brilliant, the passing game was prolific, and the touchdowns plentiful.
But that victory came at great cost. When the final gun sounded, Patrick Willis, Mike Iupati, Stevie Johnson and Jimmy Ward were out with injuries...and the 49ers looked more like a MASH unit than a professional football team. With the injuries suffered in St Louis, the 49ers are down two defensive backs, three linebackers, one defensive lineman, one wide receiver and one tight end. Ugh.
The 49ers expected to rely on backups early while Navorro Bowman recovered from injury and Aldon Smith served his 9-game suspension...no one expected to be missing an additional 3 starters on offense AND defense. That kind of roster churn can derail a season...let alone a tough road game. The 49ers' chances this weekend will have as much to do with who is available to play as with how well they play.
Is it time to panic? Not yet. Is it time to be concerned? You bet it is.
Two Minute Drill
*When Patrick Willis left last week's game with turf toe, I was certain that the defense was going to lose steam. I have never been more happy to be proven wrong. Rookie MLB Chris Borland did his best impression of the Tasmanian Devil in a relief role last week. For the 49ers to be successful in Denver, he'll need to do the same as a starter if Patrick Willis can't go.
*Pay careful attention to the status of LG Mike Iupati and RT Anthony Davis approaching this weekend's contest. The Broncos excel at getting pressure on opposing QBs...and at containing opposing runners. If Iupati and Davis are good to go for Sunday's game, expect the 49ers to take the teeth out of the Bronco pass rush by forcing them to defend the run. That could set up some opportunities over the top against a secondary that has looked ordinary at times this season.
*Wondering what happened to the run in St Louis on Monday night? Much of what transpired had to do with how the Rams chose to defend the 49ers. They spent much of the night with one safety high and one safety down low, dedicating 8 defenders to the run. That strategy worked early...but left the Rams' corners isolated. It will be interesting to see if the Broncos choose to employ the same strategy.
Week 7 Picks
NY Jets at New England (-9.5)
Make no mistake, the Patriots are no longer a perennial Super Bowl contender. Tom Brady is easily the most talented player on this team...and sooner or later, he won't be able to carry them any longer. But since the Jets would probably lose a game of tic-tac-toe these days, odds are that Tommy Terrific and friends should be good to go this week. NEW ENGLAND
Cincinnati at Indianapolis (-3)
Cincinnati has turned in two disappointing weeks of football in a row...and Indianapolis is getting better week over week. The magic 8-ball says that both streaks will continue this weekend. INDIANAPOLIS
Tennessee at Washington (-6)
With the return of Jordan Reed, Kirk Cousins has one more weapon...but he still has a penchant for throwing interceptions in an almost Jeff George-like fashion. Fortunately for Washington fans, Tennessee is worse than ANYTHING you could order from Olive Garden. WASHINGTON
Miami at Chicago (-3.5)
What happens when the mediocre force meets the relatively movable object? Watch this game and you'll find out. The Bears have a great offense coupled with a sieve of a defense, and the Dolphins are marginally talented underachievers. Sounds like the recipe for a home team win. CHICAGO
Cleveland (-5) at Jacksonville
Ugh. Welcome to the wonderful world of parity, boys and girls! The only reason anyone should be watching this game is to see how their fantasy players are doing. Because no matter how hard I try, it's impossible to root for the perpetually inept (Jacksonville) or the historically impotent (Cleveland). I'm flipping a coin on this one. CLEVELAND
Seattle (-7) at St. Louis
After the egg Seattle laid at home last week and the outright AMAZING performance the St Louis defense turned in against the San Francisco ground attack, I'm not sure the visitors will be able to pull this one off by a full TD. Give me the Rams and the points. ST LOUIS
Carolina at Green Bay (-7)
Cam Newton must feel incredibly lonely on a team suddenly devoid of playmakers. GREEN BAY
Atlanta at Baltimore (-7)
Don't look now, but he of the most unwieldy contract in NFL history is starting to live up to the hype. I'm not sure how long that will last, but I'll wager that an injury depleted road team probably won't be able to deliver the goods in Baltimore this weekend. BALTIMORE
Minnesota at Buffalo (-5)
I am NOT buying on Buffalo's resurgence. I am buying Teddy Bridgewater as a bright spot on an otherwise unremarkable team, though. MINNESOTA
New Orleans at Detroit (-3)
New Orleans has looked very beatable this season. Perhaps it's age, perhaps bad luck, but whatever it is, I don't see it changing against a stout front 7. Expect the home team to bring the house in an effort to shut down Drew Brees. DETROIT
Kansas City at San Diego (-4)
San Diego has played LIGHTS OUT football this season. Kansas City has not...at least not every week. SAN DIEGO
NY Giants at Dallas (-6.5)
DeMarco Murray is playing out of his mind right now. The same cannot be said for anyone playing for the Giants. DALLAS
Arizona (-3.5) at Oakland
I want Arizona to lose with every fiber of my being...but no matter how I look at this game, I just can't see it happening. The Raiders have their QB...but that's about it. Oakland is too spotty, too undisciplined and too beat up. Even at home, I don't think this one will go their way. ARIZONA
Houston at Pittsburgh (-3.5)
No. I will not pick the Steelers to win this game. Uneven across the board with the exception of QB and WR, I am unsure which team I'll see week in and week out. JJ Watt might be able to win this one by himself. HOUSTON
San Francisco at Denver (-6.5)
The 49ers have managed to put together a very solid defense (2nd overall in total defense, PFF cumulative season grade of +42.8) despite a host of injuries (Navorro Bowman, Tremaine Brock, Glen Dorsey, Patrick Willis, Jimmy Ward)...and that solid defense will be tested this Sunday Night. The Broncos are the best team in football thus far, and a defense minus its biggest playmakers will be hard pressed to shut them down. The 49ers certainly have the ability to hang with and beat the Broncos...but they'll need to see stellar outings from likely injury replacements Chris Borland (+3.6 playing in place of Patrick Willis) and Dontae Johnson (+1.9 with a pick six playing in place of Jimmy Ward) in addition to a complete effort from their very talented (yet slightly out of step) offense. Can they get it done in the Mile High City? Sure. The 49ers' last two quarters of football were perhaps their most complete of the season. Will they get it done in the Mile High City? That remains to be seen. But if the 49ers do lose this game, it won't be by more than 6 points. SAN FRANCISCO