Statistics Through Week 12
Points per game: 24.9 (#10) previous week: 24.7 (#12)
Yards per game: 308.5 (#30) previous week: 309.0 (#30)
Passing yards (per game): 173.5 (#32) previous week: 168.0 (#32)
Rushing yards (per game): 135.1 (#4) previous week: 141.0 (#5)
3rd-down conversion rate: 36.91 percent (#18) previous week: 37.78 percent (#17)
Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 62.86 (#5) previous week: 61.29 percent (#5)
Points per game: 16.7 (#4) previous week: 17.8 (#4)
Yards per game: 314.2 (#7) previous week: 326.6 (#9)
Passing yards (per game): 209.5 (#5) previous week: 222.8 (#10)
Rushing yards (per game): 104.7 (#12) previous week: 103.8 (#12)
3rd-down conversion rate: 34.18 percent (#6) previous week: 34.97 percent (#6)
Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 55.17 (#19) previous week: 59.26 percent (#22)
Turnover margin: +6 (22 takeaways, 16 giveaways) previous week: +6 (21 takeaways, 15 giveaways)
Penalties per game: 6.2 (#13) previous week: 6.4 (#16)
Penalty yards per game: 51.2 (#13) previous week: 53.8 (#14)
NFC West Standings (record, division)
Seattle Seahawks (10-1, 3-0)
San Francisco 49ers (7-4, 2-1)
Arizona Cardinals (7-4, 0-3)
St. Louis Rams (5-6, 1-2)
NFC Playoff Standings (record, conference)
1. Seattle (10-1, 7-0)
2. New Orleans (9-2, 7-0)
3. Detroit (7-5, 5-2)
4. Dallas (6-5, 6-3)
5. Carolina (7-5, 6-2)
6. San Francisco (7-4, 4-3)
In the Hunt
7. Arizona (7-4, 4-4)
8. Philadelphia (6-5, 5-2)
9. Chicago (6-5, 3-5)
What It Means
With Monday night's win over Washington the 49ers moved back into the final Wild Card spot over Arizona, who temporarily jumped San Francisco with their 40-11 drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday.
The 49ers' win ended their two-game losing streak. It was just the second time the team has lost back-to-back games under Jim Harbaugh with the first time coming in Weeks 2 and 3 of this season. It's been a quirky year.
For a week, the rampant questioning of Colin Kaepernick can slow down after he set a career mark for passer rating (134.5) by completing 15 of 24 throws for 235 yards and three scores on Monday. It was just the third time all season he has thrown for 200 yards or more.
The underlying theme for San Francisco in the season's second half has been the reintegration of players on the roster. Following the bye in Week 9, Mario Manningham, Aldon Smith, Eric Wright and others have all been added to the 53 while the team hopes their contributions can add to another deep playoff push.
But the most important player to be added is one that will make his debut Sunday. Michael Crabtree's expected debut couldn't come soon enough for the league's lowest rated passing attack that's seen almost a complete turnover at wideout since the start of training camp. With Manningham and now Crabtree back in the fold, the 49ers can begin to fortify their passing attack by relying less on Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin.
We handicapped Crabtree's pending impact earlier this week.
The 49ers would have obviously preferred to win their close games against Carolina and New Orleans, but they've managed to maintain a spot in the playoffs while a number of key players have missed the majority of the season. Another positive from Monday's win was Aldon Smith's two-sack performance. For the first time since his five-week leave of absence to deal with his off-the-field issues, Smith looked like the player that earned team MVP honors in 2012 when he had 19.5 sacks.
Smith's absence allowed for Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier to get a volume of game reps that would have otherwise went to Smith, and they played well in his absence. The overall sack numbers weren't overwhelming, but Ahmad Brooks' outstanding play on the other side of the formation picked up the slack. The 49ers are averaging 2.5 sacks per game this season, which is up from 2.2 from a year ago. If Smith can return to form and Brooks can maintain his All-Pro level of play, San Francisco will be awfully dangerous in the postseason.
The defense continues to round into form while the offense had struggled prior to last week in Washington. Since Week 3, the 49ers have allowed an average of just 12.5 points per game. And over the last three games, Brooks tied J.J. Watt for the league lead with five November sacks.
And since the bye week, Patrick Willis has returned to form as one of the NFL's elite linebackers after struggling to get healthy in the first half. Willis' range has improved as his strained groined appears fully healed. His hand is also back to full strength after fracturing it back in training camp. There's a definite correlation between the defense's improved play since Week 3 and Willis' overall health.
Perhaps the team's greatest strength that receives the least recognition is the play of the special teams. After struggling in kick coverage at times last season, San Francisco's kick and return units have rebounded to become one of the best in the league.
The 49ers' average starting field position Monday was their own 43 yard line, while Washington's was their own 24. For the season, San Francisco is third in the NFL (behind Seattle and Kansas City) in starting field position averaging a start as their own 31.2. But they are also third in opponents starting position, their own 24-yard line. Those stats are also a credit to the defense, but that should not diminish the play Andy Lee and Phil Dawson.
C.J. Spillman, Darryl Morris and Kassim Osgood have all been outstanding in kick and punt coverage. Spillman is the best of the group and should earn Pro-Bowl recognition for his efforts. He leads the team in "Special Teams Points" with 588 (Craig Dahl is next with 480) – a metric the team uses to measure production on coverage and return units.
Since taking over the return job, LaMichael James has added a much-needed spark to the team. James is averaging more than double the return yardage on punts of his predecessor Kyle Williams. He's also returning kickoffs at a 27.3-yard clip, far better than Williams' 19.1.
Areas to improve
Until Kaepernick can consistently string together strong performances from the pocket, questions will remain about his ability to properly read defenses post snap and make his progressions accordingly in the passing game. He's been hurt by waiting too long to check down to open running backs in the flat – which is ironic considering Alex Smith's tendencies to check down too soon during his time as San Francisco's starter.
And when making progressions while having to move in and out of the pocket, Kaepernick needs to improve his footwork and squaring up to his targets. Too often is he out of sync with his lower body when he tries to make throws when pressured. Kaepernick is 25th in Pro Football Focus' accuracy percentage, making accurate throws less than 69 percent of the time. He's also last under pressure, where he makes precise throws just 50 percent of the time.
Having his familiar assortment of weapons around should help Kaepernick improve in all these areas going forward. Crabtree, Manningham and Boldin should be better at making improvisational plays when the pocket breaks down than the batch of wideouts the 49ers have used prior. The continued development of Vance McDonald and Jon Baldwin wouldn't hurt either. Quinton Patton is a wild card that could return from his fractured foot any week now.
Call a mini-slump, but Frank Gore ran for just 79 yards on 26 carries over the last two weeks and hasn't scored a touchdown since before the bye. Gore's touches have dropped significantly. During the team's five-game winning streak, he received 21 carries per game. In three games since, he's gotten 16, 13 and 13. An improved passing game could help Gore face more favorable defensive fronts.
There are just two remaining games at Candlestick Park following Sunday's division bout against the Rams. But that also means there are two pivotal road games remaining as well. After this week, San Francisco faces Seattle in a game that will be critical for the team's confidence considering the level of dominance the Seahawks exhibited in their last two meetings. They outscored the 49ers 71-19.
If San Francisco wants to make a return trip to the Super Bowl, there's a good chance they will have to do so by going either through Seattle or New Orleans. Even though they didn't win two weeks ago, they know they can go and beat the Saints. But they have not won a game against the Seahawks in more than 13 months.
Still a game behind Carolina, the 49ers aren't completely out of the race for the No. 5 seed in the playoffs. But they must finish with a better record than the 8-3 Panthers to do so because they lost the tiebreaker in Week 10. The Panthers still have to play the Saints twice while their other games include Tampa Bay at home, the Jets at home and a road game against the Falcons to close out the regular season.
Within the division, the Cardinals are still very much alive for a playoff spot as they hold the same record as San Francisco (7-4). But Arizona's remaining slate is tough, starting with a game Sunday against the Eagles followed by home game with the Rams, trips to Tennessee and Seattle before finishing off the season with the 49ers at home.
Overall, the 49ers are getting all their ducks in a row just in time for the stretch run. But for their Super Bowl aspirations to remain a possibility, they must hit their stride soon before a Wild Card berth slips through their fingers. They own the last playoff spot by way of a tie breaker, making their margin of error as thin as it could possibly be.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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