By Shawn Heintz
I recently read an article on Yahoo! analyzing the possibility of the San Francisco 49ers having the ability to (mathematically) clinch the division by Thanksgiving. Their analysis says it’s not likely, but possible. What do you think? My thoughts on the matter are that they may have (no, they have) already clinched. Think about it, we are already 8 games into the season, all of these teams have had their bye week, so all have 9 games left. Does anyone really believe that any of these teams are capable of playing the second half of the season with a winning record? That’s what it would take for St. Louis or Arizona to equal the 6 victories that the 49ers have already earned. The Seahawks have 2 wins (I don’t know how because they are a horrible team with a worse coach), and they would only need 4 wins to equal the 6 so far by San Francisco, but they play a Dallas team coming off of a hard loss who are sure to want to take out their frustration on the field, which means the Seahawks are going to lose, and lose royally. So with that loss they need to go 4 – 4 in their 8 remaining games, which in my opinion is far out of their reach.
My point in all of this is, Thanksgiving? Really? Please. This team has already clinched in a horrible division. And I am looking at this purely from the perspective of: can any of these teams get to the win total that they 49ers have now at 6. San Francisco also has 9 games to play, and to make their season even more impressive, they have already gone through the most difficult part of their schedule, beating Cincinatti, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Detroit consecutively after that close loss (their only loss) to the Dallas Cowboys. Their hardest games remaining on their schedule are week 10 at home against the Giants, week 12 away against Baltimore, and week 15 at home against Pittsburgh. After those, their next hardest game is this week against the last place Redskins who have lost 3 in a row and are looking like their normal selves.
This blog has given the San Francisco 49ers a lot of love in statements here and there, because they deserve it and haven’t gotten near the press that horrible teams like the Denver Broncos have because of guys like Tim Tebow who can bring in some fans and get writers to put his name in print, but can’t win games (unless they are given to him). There have already been 3 articles about him on this blog alone (which I want to give a shout out to Howie for, because he had the Tebow failure pegged before he ever started and before the controversy became the insanity it is now), but the Niners have given us reason to believe that the West may have something to offer this year, and they deserve the notoriety for their job well done.
Jim Harbaugh is clearly a leader on this team. They say you can tell by a person’s handshake, and we know now that it is quite firm (just ask Jim Schwartz… sorry Jim, I couldn’t help myself), and the team is responding to his youthful vigor (even in his late 40’s) and determination to turn this team into a perennial winner. While I don’t have anything concrete to back what I am about to say up, it just appears to be true from the outside looking in, that Harbaugh has been the key to Alex Smith’s success. What evidence I do have is the proof that Harbaugh has left behind him. He came from Stanford, where he coached another young quarterback which the whole NFL seems to be clamoring for in Andrew Luck. Is it possible that Jim Harbaugh is working his same brilliance on Alex Smith who himself was highly touted coming out of college? Harbaugh is familiar to me because I am a Bears fan, and I remember him playing adequately as the starting quarterback there for a few years. He was drafted by Chicago in the first round back in 1987, later moving on to the Colts in 1994 (where he was quarterback until 1998 when Peyton Manning entered the scene being drafted by the Colts), bringing his team to the AFC Championship Game in 1995, a hail mary pass away from getting the Colts to the Super Bowl. He was also the runner-up in the NFL MVP voting that year, so he has a pedigree as a successful NFL Quarterback, and I have to believe that has a lot to do with the success of the quarterbacks he has coached in his young coaching career. A good leader will find a way to win with what pieces he has, and Harbaugh has done just that, making the NFC West look like it has a real contender in a division that looked like it didn’t deserve a playoff spot last season.But good coaching isn’t the only thing happening in the Bay area, it also has a young team built around staples in the NFL that make teams challenge for a playoff run year in and year out. The San Francisco 49ers are built around a good defense and running game. Patrick Willis and Frank Gore have become household names in families who enjoy Sunday football, but they have been with the team for a number of years now. It is the collective group that is making the Niners a fun team to watch again. Here’s a few names for you: Navorro Bowman is the team leader in tackles this year (rather than Patrick Willis) with 68 (54 solo). Also there are some good pass rushers on this team in Aldon Smith who has 7 sacks already, as well as Justin Smith with 5, not to mention Carlos Rogers, who leads the team with 3 interceptions and 9 pass deflections. Honestly, I used to hate the 49ers when I was a kid, because they always seemed to knock my team out of the playoffs every year. But names like Joe Montana and Steve Young, who both threw the ball to Jerry Rice, not to mention Ronnie Lott have long retired and found their places in Canton. And since their departure, San Francisco has been waiting for the emergence of another dynasty since. That time may be in its early stages because the building blocks are there, and it is only a matter of time before this team makes a serious run to the Super Bowl. I don’t think this is the year, but at the same time it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see them there either. They still have the defending champion Green Bay Packers to contend with and that is a tall order for any team, especially one with young success.
What makes me believe that this team is on the right track is that they continue to get better. There are a lot of teams that have flashes of life, but then fall short in the grand scheme of things (aka the Washington Redskins), but San Francisco doesn’t look like a flash of light, instead a steady intensifying beam of determination, willing themselves near the top of the league and in the discussion now for who is the team to beat. I have long said that once you get to the playoffs, anyone can win, it doesn’t matter what your record is, who your stars are, if you have home field advantage, a first round bye, any of it. The fact is, once you get there, you just need to get hot, and I believe that is true in this case especially. The Niners are one of those dangerous teams that can take you by surprise, many still doubting whether Alex Smith can continue this pace the rest of the year. But never has he had a target like Michael Crabtree when he’s healthy and knows the routes as he does now, making the vertical game a serious point of preparation for opposing defenses. Coupling that with the run game and it opens more opportunities for Frank Gore to abuse defensive lines and finding a plethora of holes to slip through that would have never been there without the emergence of a passing attack. Crabtree is getting better, and will continue to do so as the year progresses. They also have Vernon Davis with good hands for a tight end, and soon they will have another weapon back in the lineup in Braylon Edwards. So the horizon looks good for San Francisco, as they continue to improve and continue to get healthy, the sky’s the limit.
Perhaps the San Francisco 49ers biggest worry should be complacency. We have seen it enough in football to know that being hot at the end of the year is one of the best assets for getting past each round of the playoffs. But as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, and asked your opinion about, I and most analysts already think the 49ers have won the division. So with more than half their games still to be played, are they only playing for a first round bye, or a favorable matchup if they weren’t to get the bye? With this much time left in the season, will the 49ers back into the playoffs, losing games late because of lack of meaning? Will the intensity of a real game be missing for so long that they won’t be up to the task of playing a hungry team that barely makes it, but plays playoff football for the last month of the season? One thing is certain, this team needs to focus on what’s ahead instead of what is behind them, because what is behind them in the division is barely a challenge, but what is in front of them, the only team in front of them, is a perfect Green Bay Packers team. Jim Harbaugh has his work cut out for him in December, when he has to keep this young team focused on the prize at the end of the season, which they will be hoping will be more than the division win they have already attained, instead building a winning atmosphere where they can gain confidence that they can do better next year, and the year after, and so on, as they learn from this years playoff run. I can see them getting to, but losing in the NFC Championship Game, and for this team that will be a huge success, but who knows what could happen if they were to get that far.