As recent as three seasons ago, the NFC West was the laughingstock of the NFL. All four teams finished with losing marks, with the Seahawks “winning” the division with seven victories.
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San Francisco exemplified this dreadfulness. A loaded defense was negated by head coach Mike Singletary, who proved unqualified and inept for the position. Worse, former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith seemed like a lost cause. The Niners’ 6-10 record marked the eighth straight non-winning season for the franchise.
While making noise with its upset of New Orleans in the Wild Card round, the forecast was not much sunnier in Seattle. The 2010 campaign was the Hawks’ third straight losing year, and with three-time Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck departing for Tennessee, the organization was without a viable commodity under center. And though he led the team to the playoffs in his first season at the helm, many in the Emerald City questioned if Pete Carroll was the right man for the job.
How times have changed. Once thought to be the black sheep of the NFC, the West division is now the conference’s bastion. Spurred by a stout defense, Arizona is fighting for a playoff spot at 7-5. Although their chances have been encumbered by a season-ending injury to Sam Bradford, the Rams have been no push-over, notching five wins on the season. The Niners, reigning conference champions, are in a position to defend their belt at 8-4, while the Seahawks are shooting for a top seed at 11-1. A Bay Area battle between the latter two serves as our FOX NFL Game of the Week.
Following consecutive losses at the start of November, San Francisco has regained its mojo with wins over Washington and St. Louis. Moreover, in a year riddled with parity more than ever, there’s nothing aberrational concerning eight wins heading into the final month. HOWEVER, one can certainly question the Niners’ chances, or lack thereof, in January. For a look at the game log showcases a startling trend: San Francisco can’t beat the big boys, losing to Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina and New Orleans. In fact, the Niners’ only triumph against a winning team came versus divisional foe Arizona. This weekend’s rendezvous with the Seahawks, a squad that laid the smackdown in the teams’ first meeting of the season, will be a litmus test for San Francisco’s postseason odds.
Matchup Watch: Colin Kaepernick vs. Seattle defense
Some semblance of Colin Kaepernick will improve the team’s prospects. The defense has been the foundation for San Francisco’s fortunes the past few seasons, and the return of Aldon Smith cements this unit’s reputation heading into the winter. Likewise, in a pass-happy league, the 49ers remain one of the few attacks that can successfully move it on the ground (130.6 yards per outing). Alas, as Kaepernick goes, so go the Niners. In wins this season, the third-year signal caller owns 16 total scores versus three turnovers, averaging 227 passing yards per game and a 62.1 completion percentage. In losses? Not so much: a 2-to-8 TD/TO ratio, hitting just half of his intended targets for a scant 124 passing yards per contest.
Things don’t get easier this week across a defense surrendering just 15.5 points per game (second-best in the NFL). This resistance is spearheaded by a secondary suffocating opposing signal callers to a league-low 177.3 yards per outing, with 16 picks versus 13 touchdowns. For the Niners to hang with the Hawks, a strong showing from Kaepernick is imperative.
How about that Jim Harbaugh SI cover?
Love how the headline proclaims Harbaugh as “sane” next to a photo of the coach with Spiderman veins ready to explode from his neck. There’s nothing remotely stable about that man. I’m pretty sure that commercial of Harbaugh yelling at kids isn’t even staged; he probably was just caught on camera going nuts on some toddlers. Frankly, that’s the way I want to envision it.
Player Spotlight: Frank Gore
Is the venerable Gore finally running out of gas? After averaging 77.8 yards per game in the team’s first nine contests, the 30-year-old has hit a wall, accumulating a mere 121 yards in the last three weeks. Not helping matters is the depleted state of the San Francisco front line, most notably injuries to Pro Bowlers Mike Iupati and Joe Staley, yet Gore’s precipitous drop in yards per attempt (4.7 mark in 2012 versus this year’s 4.0) yards after catch (8.3 to 6.7) illustrates the back is losing steam.
Gore is gifted a respite in matchups against Tampa and Atlanta in Weeks 15 and 16; nevertheless, keeping in mind the Niners’ ground-first attack, Gore’s regression will be something to monitor in December.
Fantasy Impact: Michael Crabtree
An auspicious 2013 debut for Crabtree last week, at least in terms of yardage production (68 yards). Unfortunately, that’s where the positivity ends. Mindful of suspensions to Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner, the Seattle secondary does not spur candidacy for wide receivers, holding the position to the third-lowest output in fantasy. Crabtree finished with a scant two receptions last week on four targets, numbers that won’t necessarily inflate thanks to Kaepernick’s inconsistency. Also, I just don’t like the guy. Keep him on the pine. (Kidding about my feelings toward Crabtree, but you would be amazed how many emails/comments accuse me of personal vendettas directed at players, teams and/or cities. All nonsense, there’s no hate in this heart. Well, aside from people who play with their phones behind home plate. They’re the worst, and may a foul ball or spilled beer find its way onto their mobile devices.)
Seattle is far from infallible, and San Francisco’s defense getting healthy at the right time makes the Niners a legitimate threat to repeat as conference champions. Unfortunately for the Red and Gold, I see the Seahawks coming out on top…Seahawks 24, 49ers 20
Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall