Must happen: The 49ers must have success against the Seahawks’ secondary. One of the best units in the NFL, the Seahawks are playing without suspended cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner. The Seahawks’ secondary bottled up the 49ers in the past two meetings between the teams. But with Michael Crabtree back and the issues surrounding Seattle, the opportunity is there the 49ers. They must take advantage.
Can’t happen: The 49ers can’t allow Seattle to jump out to a big lead. The Seahawks have blown out the 49ers twice in the past calendar year. If the Seahawks jump out to a 14-0 lead, it will get in the heads of both teams. The 49ers can’t allow Seattle to get an early edge.
It’s wildly popular, but it’s been pretty much a 49ers-free zone this season.
At face value, that’s somewhat strange. The top-10 list is filled with players from the top teams. The 49ers qualify as a top team. They are 8-4 and are ranked sixth in ESPN.com’s NFL Power Rankings. Still, they don’t get much mention in the MVP conversation.
I can understand why. It's been a group effort without anyone dramatically standing out. I’ve written quarter checkpoints for all three quarters of the season. I’ve given offensive and defensive MVPs for all three quarters. I’ve recognized six different players.
No one has been head-and-shoulders, the best player on the team this season.
If I had to give an MVP for the season, with a quarter of the schedule to go, I‘d go with inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He’s been unbelievable. He makes an impact on nearly every play. With fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis dealing with multiple injuries earlier in the season, Bowman led a strong defense.
I asked on Twitter earlier Tuesday for people to send in their suggestions. Several players received consideration.
Among them are receiver Anquan Boldin, tight end Vernon Davis and running back Frank Gore on offense. On defense, along with Bowman, linebackers Ahmad Brooks and defensive lineman Justin Smith received MVP support.
I can see the argument for all of the players. It backs up the theory that it is a deep, ensemble team that doesn’t rely on any one player.
Fill the comment section below with thoughts on who you believe has been the team's MVP this season.
Smith is having another big season. His statistics may not show it, but Smith is disruptive on every play. He causes chaos for the offensive line. I think he still has a couple of seasons left as he is showing he is still a huge factor on a dominant defense.
In other 49ers’ notes:
• As he often is, 49ers punter Andy Lee was an honorable mention ESPN.com Punter of the Week. Continuing a tremendous season, Lee punted four times Sunday against St. Louis and pinned the Rams on their own 3 and own 8 in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter. St. Louis star returner Tavon Austin was able to return just one punt.
• According to ESPN Stats & Information, tight end Vernon Davis joined former receivers Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens as the only 49ers with multiple seasons of 10-plus receiving touchdowns in the past 40 years.
• The 49ers are currently on pace to have the 26th pick in the first round of the May draft. Click here for the full 2014 draft order through Week 13.
Preseason: 3 | Last week: 7 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002
The 49ers are getting a lot of respect this week’s Power Rankings as the highest-rated 8-4 team in the league. They moved ahead of Kansas City, which is 9-3. The Chiefs have lost three games in a row. The 49ers have been consistent all season.
The 49ers should be ranked higher than the Chiefs. This team looks strong heading down the stretch.
Of course, we will learn more about the 49ers in Week 14, when they host NFC West rival and No. 1-ranked Seattle. The Seahawks walloped San Francisco -- which at the time was ranked No. 1 -- in Seattle in Week 2. Now, the 49ers get their chance to show they are a top team.
Three of the 49ers’ four losses have come to teams ranked in the top five. It’s time the 49ers show they can beat an elite club.
Star receiver Michael Crabtree made his season debut Sunday and the result was the 49ers passing game came alive. However, the run game, which has been the focus of the offense, continued a mini slump.
Starting tailback Frank Gore has 121 yards on 41 carries in the past three games. As he did when asked about a floundering passing game, this season, 49ers' coach Jim Harbaugh defended his team's ground game and said there is little to worry about. He noted the Rams, who the 49ers beat Sunday, are tough to run on.
Like many teams, the Rams stacked the box. As Crabtree continues to regain his health, that may not be the case. The 49ers exploited it Sunday.
“They just did a good job stopping the run and we countered with the pass, which was very effective,” Harbaugh said. “That was very much a positive.
“I think it definitely helps to be effective. Make people pay for moves that they make or to be able to counter it. ‘Well, here's how we're going to stop you.' Well, here's how we're going to counter that. That's just like being in an argument with somebody. They make an argument, you counter. Then they've got to counter back. It's similar to that. Good to have a good counter argument. State a case.”
Earlier in the season, the run game was the counter for a weak pass game. The key for the 49ers is to find a way for both aspects being a complement to the other.
Story of the quarter: Beating the bad. Losing to the good. The third quarter has been a microcosm of the 49ers’ season. They started the quarter losing to top teams, Carolina and New Orleans, by a total of four points. The 49ers then blew away losing teams, Washington and St. Louis. The 49ers are 6-0 against teams with losing records and 2-4 against teams with winning records. When they win, the 49ers do their job. They have seven double-digit wins, which is tied for the league high with Denver.
Offensive MVP of the quarter: Kicker Phil Dawson. Anytime the kicker is an MVP, it means it is a team that needs to finish some drives. That is certainly the case for the 49ers, whose offense got into a funk in the losses to the Panthers and Saints. But Dawson has made sure the 49ers have scored. He has made 16 straight field goals and he made 10 in the past four games. Dawson was signed in the offseason because the 49ers wanted more consistency than they got form David Akers. It’s been a move that’s worked beautifully.
Defensive player of the quarter: Linebacker Ahmad Brooks. The San Francisco defense has been brilliant in the quarter. It played winning football even in the two losses. We could go a lot of ways here, but Brooks gets the nod. He was all over the field against New Orleans (more about that later) and Washington. Brooks is a solid complementary piece on a unit of stars. But in this quarter he stood out.
Rookie of the quarter: Safety Eric Reid. The first-round draft pick has been a steady force all season. The thing that sticks out about him is he is polished and professional. He’s looked like a five-year pro since Week 1. He was well worth moving up from No. 31 to No. 18 in the draft. He’s been an upgrade over Dashon Goldson, who went to Tampa Bay in free agency.
Disappointment of the quarter: Controversial call at New Orleans. The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go, but Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Drew Brees' neck. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than his neck. The 15-yard penalty gave the Saints new life, and New Orleans finished the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go. The Saints won it with another field goal as time expired. The 49ers still feel like they should have won the game and be 9-3. It won’t change, but the play still hovers in Santa Clara, Calif. I think it has fueled the team and it could end up being a positive.
Biggest unanswered question of the quarter: Offensive health. The 49ers' receivers are now finally healthy. Michael Crabtree made his season debut in Week 13 and the offense instantly improved. However, the 49ers’ offense is not out of the woods. It seems like standout left tackle Joe Staley might be out for a few games with a knee sprain. Right guard Alex Boone will play left tackle and youngster Joe Looney will start for the first time. The 49ers are already playing without starting guard Mike Iupati. He may miss another week with a knee sprain. This offense has never been at full strength this season and it looks like it still may be a while.
Fearless prediction for the fourth quarter: The 49ers will make the playoffs. The 49ers are currently on pace to be the No. 6 seed in the NFC. If I had to guess, I’d say the 49ers will finish 11-5. That’s a heck of a season. But the truth is, if the 49ers want to get back to the Super Bowl, they will have to win three straight weeks on the road in January.
Nah. Harbaugh is not one to get in the way of athletic freakiness.
“Did you tell Michael Jordan not to take off from the free-throw line?” Harbaugh said Monday. “I doubt Phil Jackson (Jordan’s coach in Chicago) ever had that conversation. These guys are pro football players. They do what they do. In some cases, they do only what they can do. It’s why we love watching them compete on Sundays.”
Excellent point, coach.
In other 49ers’ notes:
Harbaugh said Monday the film showed star receiver Michael Crabtree played well Sunday in his 2013 debut. He has been out since May with a torn Achilles.
“I thought he did a very good job,” Harbaugh said of Crabtree. “I think he was really into the game, wanted the ball and he got it and made some things happen. So, the big play the big conversion on third down. Did a lot of good things. Competed.”
Harbaugh jokes his father, Jack Harbaugh, gave him grief that the 49ers didn’t run the ball enough at the end of the 23-13 win over the Rams. “I get it from my dad, too,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh did not have an update on star left tackle Joe Staley on Monday. Staley left Sunday's win against St. Louis with a knee injury. Sources said, after the game, the initial diagnosis was Staley sprained his right MCL. He could miss a couple of games. Harbaugh said Monday the team was hopeful it is not more serious.
Update: The word on Staley on Monday evening is he’s week-to-week. How he responds to treatment will determine how long he will be out, but it likely won’t be for an extended period.
With Staley out, right guard Alex Boone moved to left tackle and the inexperienced Joe Looney took over at right guard. Harbaugh said Monday the makeshift unit played well.
If Iupati misses Sunday's game, the 49ers will have three replacements playing. The 49ers' offense has yet to play a down this season with the starting 11 and that may not happen until Week 16.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said playing without so many offensive linemen at their natural spot will catch up to the 49ers if the situation lingers.
“I think Staley is one of the top three or four LTs in the NFL and is especially great in the run game and yes, he will be missed for sure,” Williamson said. “But Boone was a LT at Ohio State and came to the NFL as an OT prospect. He certainly has that body type. He might be a better 'band aid' player there for the short term than most teams have if their starting LT were to fall, but still, San Francisco is now weaker at three offensive line spots than when the starters are available."
"I'm still thinking about it. I can feel it," Davis said after the 49ers' 23-13 victory, according to the team's website. "It was a crossing route. I made the play, and as soon as I got my hands on the ball, [McDonald] was grabbing me right there in that space, that area, and I kept telling him, 'Let go, get off me, get off me,' and he wouldn't let me go."
Davis also tweeted about the third-quarter play Monday, saying "it should be a league rule saying that a defender can not tackle a player by his penis," calling it "the most painful thing ever!"
A protective cup may have helped Davis on Sunday, but apparently an overwhelming majority of NFL players don't use one.
In a story published last December, The New York Times reported cups were rarely used at the highest levels of the sport. Several players interviewed reportedly cited the restrictive feeling that is associated with trying to run while wearing a cup.
The tackle came in a game in which Davis displayed his athleticism with a new move, and did so not once but twice: a high hurdle over defenders.
He led with his right foot while leaping over safety Rodney McLeod in the first half, then again to reach the end zone on his team-leading 10th touchdown catch on a 17-yard scoring play in the fourth quarter.
"It's just instincts," Davis said. "I said, 'Look, I won't be denied.'"
Week 14: Seattle at San Francisco.
Now that it's game week, it is, indeed, a crucial game. However, each team needs it for different reasons. The NFC West title is not directly at stake. The Seahawks are 10-1 going into a home game against New Orleans on Monday night. The 49ers are 8-4 heading into the final quarter of the season.
The Seahawks can win the NFC West with a victory over the 49ers on Sunday regardless of what happens Monday night. The 49ers need to beat Seattle to keep pace for the sixth and final NFC playoff seed. The 49ers lead both Philadelphia and Arizona by a game in the wild-card race.
It was no surprise the Seahawks were a topic of discussion Sunday in the locker room, minutes after the 49ers' 23-13 win over St. Louis.
San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said the 49ers are ready for the Seahawks after they were “embarrassed” in Seattle in Week during a 29-3 loss. San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis said the key is not to be “overwhelmed” by the task. Guard Alex Boone essentially had the same message Sunday night.
“It's another game to us,” Boone said. “Anytime you overthink a game, you get beat. We'll go over details, but let's not make it more than it is.”
That may be difficult to do, considering it's a game that has been pumped up for nearly eight months.
Defense dominates: The San Francisco defense has been playing at a championship level essentially all season. In recent weeks, though, it has upped its game. Spanning the final half of last week’s win at Washington and the first half against the Rams, the 49ers’ defense allowed 103 yards and three points.
Austin not a factor: St. Louis rookie star Tavon Austin averaged fewer than 17 yards per kick return and had one punt return for 10 yards. He added 35 yards combined on four catches and one carry. Austin has been explosive in recent weeks. Keeping him from making big plays was a focal point for the 49ers, and they did their job.
Run game stumbles: San Francisco's run game has faltered in recent weeks. Frank Gore had 42 yards on 15 carries Sunday and lost his third fumble of the season. In the past three games, Gore has 121 yards on 41 carries. I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, but it could become one if Gore doesn't regain his normal pace of production. For the season he has 821 rushing yards and is averaging four yards a carry.
It has been a common theme this year in media and fan circles.
After seeing him with a full complement of offensive weapons Sunday for the first time this season, that line of questioning may dissipate.
Kaepernick looked calm, cool, confident and efficient in the San Francisco 49ers' 23-13 victory over St. Louis Rams on Sunday as San Francisco sent the rest of the NFC an early-December message: A healthy 49ers' offense is a dangerous offense.
It's no coincidence Kaepernick looked far from being a detriment Sunday. Star receiver Michael Crabtree made his 2013 season debut after being out with a torn Achilles he suffered in May. For the first time since the Super Bowl, Kaepernick had a full cache of weapons. It was also the first time the team's top three receivers -- Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin -- played together.
If this group (as well as fourth option Mario Manningham, who played little Sunday because the 49ers used a lot of double tight-end sets) can stay healthy, it will be extremely dangerous down the stretch for the 49ers, who are 8-4 and in control of the sixth and final NFC playoff seed heading into the final quarter of the season.
And it will probably make Kaepernick, in his first full season as the starting quarterback, look as good as he did during last year's Super Bowl run.
"Colin was dynamic," San Francisco offensive lineman Adam Snyder said after the game. "He's been good all year, but give him these weapons and he is going to get a lot done."
He did Sunday, going 19-of-28 for 275 yards. There's no doubt, Kaepernick is more comfortable with a full complement of receivers.
In Week 4 against St. Louis (playing without Crabtree and Manningham), Kaepernick went 8-of-15 for 96 yards against the Rams' standard four-man rush. According to ESPN Stats & Information, against the same pressure Sunday, Kaepernick was 15-of-20 for 233 yards and a touchdown pass.
When facing a non-blitzing situation during the first 11 games of the season, Kaepernick completed 57.9 percent of his passes, averaged 7.2 yards per attempt and threw six interceptions. Against a four-man rush Sunday, he completed 75 percent of his passes, averaged 11.7 yards per attempt and was not intercepted.
Kaepernick's success against the Rams' standard pass rush, considered one of the best in the league, will likely force opposing defensive coordinators to consider different approaches and perhaps decide to blitz more often. That could create more opportunities for this offense.
That's the beauty of Crabtree's return for Kaepernick and the 49ers' offense. He opens up schematic advantages and secondary reads for the 49ers that simply were not there earlier in the season and made Kaepernick's job more difficult.
With Crabtree back (he had two catches for 68 yards), the pressure instantly came off Boldin and Davis. Boldin had one of his best games with the 49ers, with nine catches for 98 yards, and he may be the key to this offense in the final weeks. He will no longer get the brunt of the defensive coverage, as he excels as a second or third option. He showed that Sunday.
"It's about time he gets double-teamed now," Boldin joked, speaking of Crabtree. "When you have a guy like that on the other side, it definitely relieves pressure off of you. It frees you up to just go out and play ball. It's good to have him back."
Last season, Crabtree was targeted on 34 percent of the 49ers' offensive plays. It was the second highest rate in the league. That opened up opportunities for Davis, a star in the final six games of last season. Those chances opened up Sunday as well. Davis had four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Inside the 49ers' walls, the team has supported Kaepernick, feeling good about his play and his field maturation amidst the challenges. Now, after seeing Crabtree's impact on the offense and how he can help Kaepernick, there is serious excitement.
"We can only get better," San Francisco fullback Bruce Miller said. "Colin's been great all season and having all of the guys back are just going to make him better."