“Quest For Six” - The 49ers Visit a Frozen Lambeau Field on Wildcard Weekend

Frank "The Bell Cow" Gore will be called upon to carry a heavy load Sunday at Lambeau

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

Jim Harbaugh thrives on this type of stuff. Lives for it. The feature game on Wildcard Weekend, going on the road to Green Bay, the expected freezing cold temperatures (high of 3 degrees, low of -24), Seattle with homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Secretly, I think this is exactly how Harbaugh would draw it up if he had the choice. The four game Super Bowl mountain is there to be climbed, and Jim and the Niners are ready and willing to fight their way up it regardless of who or what gets in their way.

Even though the New York Football Giants have recently proven otherwise, conventional wisdom suggests it is extremely difficult to go on the road, in below zero temperatures, before a loud and passionate fanbase, and beat Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Fortunately, the 2013 version of the San Francisco 49ers turns out to be a pretty darn good football team.

Owners of the third best record in the NFL, the 12-4 Niners will be the only road team to be favored this weekend (-3). Riding an impressive six game winning streak to close out the regular season, San Francisco seems to be hitting their stride at exactly the right time. Better yet, SF has had Green Bay’s number as of late, beating the Packers three times in the last 16 months. This includes last year’s 45-31 Divisional Playoff win versus the Pack inside the late Candlestick Park, not to mention this year’s home opener in which Colin Kaepernick had his best game of the season against Green Bay.

Marquez Pope and the Niners came up short at Green Bay in the '96 Playoffs

For better or worse, the sunny California skies of early September in which the Niner offense operated so masterfully under will not be present this Sunday. Far from it. It remains to be seen how the speed of Kap’s passes will be received in the frigid conditions inside Lambeau. No word on whether there’s a “broken finger” prop bet in place for Sunday, but Boldin, Crabtree and Davis will be tasked with the unenviable duty of catching icy bullets from Kap all evening long.

Even coming off a lackluster performance in Arizona last weekend, it is safe to assume Frank Gore will shoulder much of the Niner’s offensive load come Sunday. Facing what is a relatively bad Packers defense, it should come as no surprise if the Niners O-Line is able to open up nice holes for Frank to run through all game long.

From the opening kick, the chess match between Jim Harbaugh and Mike McCarthy should be interesting to watch. Will Green Bay, without an injured Clay Matthews, try to stuff the box and force San Francisco to pass? Or will McCarthy decide to play it straight up, honoring the exploits of SF’s proven aerial attack of Kap, Crabs, VD, and Boldin? How hard headed will Jim Harbaugh be in said chess match? How much will the weather really become a factor?

Colin Kaepernick's legs were too much for Green Bay to handle in last year's Playoffs

On the other side of the ball you have the Lambeau legend in the making that is Aaron Rodgers. Beyond being athletic enough to “make every throw on the field," Rodgers' leadership, experience and overall competitiveness is what has kept Niner Faithful awake at night all week long leading up to Sunday. From his days as a high schooler in Chico without a college scholarship offer, to being passed up by San Francisco in the draft, to his years tucked in the shadows of the infamous Brett Favre, Rodgers has always seemed to play with something extra to prove. No matter how often the Niners’ D-Line gets to Rodgers, Number 12 won’t fade. It is almost assured that he will put up a considerable amount of points on the board on Sunday. The question is whether or not Kaepernick and co will be able to consistently counter with points of their own.

It is no secret that the Super Bowl champion often emerges out of Wildcard Weekend. You’d certainly have to like the Niners chances in the Divisional Round, riding what would be a seven game winning streak, playing a team fighting off a week of rust. But first, the Niners must prove to its Faithful that they can go into an icy Lambeau and steal the cheese from one of the most passionate fan bases in the history of sports. The sellout controversy aside, the Packers fans that do show up will be shirtless, inebriated and hungry to defend their frozen turf.

We all remember the two times the Niners have ventured out to Wisconsin to play the Pack in the playoffs. The 1996 contest was a mudbowl featuring Elvis Grbac, Dorsey Levins and Desmond Howard, while the 2001 tilt gave us a steady dose of Brett Favre and Ahman Green. Both resulted in gutwrenching defeats and long plane rides back to the Bay. Sunday will feature Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin and Boobie Dixon, versus the likes of Aaron Rodgrs and Eddie Lacy, and a frozen playing surface. Let the chess match begin, we’ll see if the third time is indeed the charm.

"The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field"

"Niner Football at the Half" - Checking in on the 6-2 San Francisco 49ers

After a two game losing skid, Harbaraugh gave the ball back to his bell cow, Mr. Frank Gore

By Devin "Reno" Wright (@TheRealReno)

While watching the Niners roll over the hapless Jacksonville Sassy Cats on Sunday morning, I suddenly became very aware of a scary fact. And this fact also made me kind of depressed. We are officially through the first half of the NFL season. Where did those first 8 weeks go!?!? You mean to tell me we only have 8 more weeks left!?!?! I'm already panicking as I write this.  In this vain, I'm gonna take a moment to collect my composure really quick....(attempts to use mediation breathing technique I learned in college in a class I actually got credits for)

Ok, I think I'm better now. Where were we? Oh yes, the half way mark of the season. After 8 short weeks, the Niners are currently 6-2 heading into their perfectly timed bye week. To be frank, it feels like I've lived three completely different lives as a fan of this team so far. A breakout start, followed by an ugly two game losing streak, followed by beautiful, dominant Niner football. Let's take this opportunity to talk about those first 8 weeks and where we should expect the second half of the season to take us. Shall we?

Life 1: SF vs Green Bay

It seems like the Forty Niners have played three different seasons already. The boys and red and gold started the season with a statement win over the Packers in which Colin Kaepernick and the offense looked virtually unstoppable. Kap had 412 passing yards and 3 touchdowns, Anquan Boldin went for 208 and a score, Vernon Davis had 98 yards a 2 scores, and the D played pretty well against a great offense. Things were looking good for the 49ers after week 1 to say the least.

Life 2: Sf @ Seattle and SF vs Indy

Rough back to back losses to rival Seattle, and Harbaugh protégé Andrew Luck showed some glaring weaknesses for SF.

In Seattle, in front of a national audience, the Niners were beaten soundly once again by the 'Hawks. The Niners could not run the ball (something over looked in the Green Bay win), and it seems like the offense was relying too much on complicated schemes that required more skill from the players, especially WR, than what the Niners were capable of. Boldin and Davis were blanketed by the Seattle secondary, while Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore were basically invisible. The D actually played pretty well, but they were constantly put into bad situations due to the lack of offensive production.

This is also where the injury bug stated to hit. Starting nose guard Ian Williams was "legally" chopped at the knee and suffered a season ending broken ankle, and Vernon Davis strained his hamstring on a deep ball late in the game.

The next week, this time at home against Indy, the offense continued to be anemic. The offense ran well on their first scoring drive of the game, but then seemed to get away from the run too quickly in search of flashy passing plays. With Davis not starting at TE, and the Indy D taking Boldin away, the passing game was left with unreliable Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore again. Needless to say, it was Colin Kaepernick's worst performance of his career.

The defense did not fare much better, as Indy was able to run all over the field for 3 scores. Late in the game, Patrick Willis suffered a groin strain, and guard Mike Iupati injured his right shoulder. On KNBR, you could hear the panic button being pressed by the final whistle.

After suffering their first losing streak, the Niners and their fans were left to reevaluate where this season was headed. A short weak heading to St. Louis, where the 49ers had lost in an ugly game last year was looming.


Quick break for my own analysis on the 1-2 start:

San Francisco ended last season with an explosive offense that put all if their playmakers on display. If it wasn't Gore, James, or Kap chunking yards on the ground, it was Crabs, and Davis getting yards through the air. With Crabs out, and Davis hurt, the Forty Niners didn't really have the personnel to be able to make those chunk yards in the air. Teams could load the box and stop the run as well because Kap and Gore were mostly operating out of the shotgun with more receivers than lineman. This lead to an inability to run the ball effectively, which has always been a staple of Harbaugh lead teams, even dating back to his Stanford days.

Life 3: Sf @ STL, SF vs Houston, SF vs AZ, SF @ Tennessee, SF "@" Jax

It seemed to happen in an instant. The flash offense of the 2013 Niners went back to the old days (2011 being the old days). Harbaugh and Roman seemed to realize that the offense needed to go back to grinding the ball on the ground with big sets and Kap under center. The needed to get back to where their bread was buttered and hand the rock to their bell cow, Frank Gore.

Right on cue,Frankie ran all over a hyped up St. Louis D for 153 yards and a back breaking 4th down score to put the game away. After that Thursday night game, the offense started to grind teams down with the running game and haven't looked back up to this point.

Before the season, everyone wondered how productive Gore could be this year due to his aging legs. Well fun fact, Frankie is quietly having one of his best seasons ever. He is on pace for around 1,300 yards rushing (second highest for his career) and a casual 14 TD's, at the age of 30. If you need some perspective on this feat, let's just say I'm 31 and have a tough time getting out of bed after going to the gym for 30 minutes.

Easy wins over Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and a bit of a struggle against Arizona have featured an offensive scheme that seems to be better suited to the players that the Niners have at the moment.

Boobie Dixon grinding for extra yardage in London (photo by Charlie Crowhurst)

On the defensive side of the ball, Vac Fangio as made a few subtle changes that have helped the D return to its dominant form. While the run defense is currently ranked 14th, those numbers should be better in the second half of the season with added depth on the line, and a healthier Patrick Willis. The pass defense has been a revelation this season ranking 8th in the NFL. Tarell Brown, Carlos Rodgers, and Eric Reid are all having great seasons, while the D line as been able to apply a little more pressure as the season has progressed thanks to rookie Cory Lemonier, who has filled in admirably after Aldon Smith was sent who knows where in order to get his act together.

With Ian Williams out, former first round pick Glenn Dorsey has become a revelation this first half of the season. Dorsey has proven stout against the run, and with 2 sacks already, he is tied for his career high. Also replacing a projected starter has been new fan favorite Tremaine Brock from tiny Belhaven College in Mississippi. "T-Brock" replaced Nnamdi Asomugha as the nickle back after the ugly loss to Indy. In only 5 games of work, Brock has arguably been SF's most productive defender, totaling 13 tackles, while also picking off 3 passes including one for a score on the third play against Houston.

So what does the rest of the season have in store you ask?

Well the biggest issues facing the Forty Niners this week have to do with roster changes. The trade deadline has come and gone, much to the relief of Boobie Dixon fans the world over, after he was allegedly placed on the trade block. The Niners must now make room for players coming back from injury, or have not been activated for the first part of the season. Running Back LeMichael James is rumored to start suiting up again. WR's Mario Manningham will hopefully provide an upgrade for Kap in the passing game, which is ranked a dismal 31st in the NFL, while Crabs is due to return around the end of November (just in time for Dec. 8th against Seattle). The defense will also receive some help with rookies Tank Carradine having been activated already as well as Quntin Dial on the D-line, and Eric Wright possibly taking Asomuhga's spot on the roster. Also, Aldon Smith is still a possibility to return this season, so another roster adjustment may be due later. It's a great problem to have that the 49ers need to adjust a talented roster to make room for more talent. That certainly bodes well for a strong second half of the season.

As far as the schedule goes, the next 8 weeks seem quite favorable to SF at this point. More so than it did at the beginning of the year. Home games against the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton (and QB coach Kenny Dorsey), struggling Atlanta and Matty Ice, and bottom feeder St. Louis seem like a possibility for an easy 3 wins. Meanwhile remaining road games against Washington, Arizona, and Tampa should also all be wins, at least on paper.

The real tests from here on out will be against a very good New Orleans team in the Superdome, and home against NFC West rival Seattle. At worst, the Niners should be 6-2 on the back end, or even 7-1. With a final record of wither 12-4 or 13-3, SF should be looking at a 1 or 2 seed in the playoffs depending on Seattle and New Orleans. After that, anything is possible in the playoffs with this squad. I'm just not sure how many more lives I can live this season, god knows we'll all live a few more...

Kaepernicking in Nash Vegas (photo by Mark Zaleski)

"Monday Morning Quarterback" - Three 49er Fans Trade Texts Analyzing Week 1

Aaron Rodgers, Aldon Smith

Expectations for the 2013 San Francisco 49ers have never been higher. Most faithful have headed into this season with a "Superbowl or bust" mentality. In that vain, The Section brings you the group text message discussion of three die-hard Niner fans the morning after SF's huge Week 1 victory over Green Bay. Kevin, Devin and Josh all poured over the game tape on Sunday night, and came to the table on Monday with plenty of opinions on Jim Harbaugh's #Squad. Next up for the Niners will be the Seattle Seahawks, and the Sunday Night Football tilt against a hated division rival will surely be a tough road test.

Feel free to chime in with your own analysis in the comments section...

Kevin: Kap didn't look great throwing the ball. Some bad misses. GB defense is bad enough that he had laughable numbers. Worried about when we play Seattle or whoever doesn't have windows for WR's you can drive a truck through.

Devin: Running game was poor too. Def some concerns for next week.

Kevin: ESPN narrative will be "How to stop Kap."

The Section: What will Sec925's narrative be?

Josh: Boldin.

Kevin: Vernon looked great also. In trenches and in routes.

Josh: Whitner had a nice game too. Was all over the field.

Devin: Eric Reid... BEAST

Kevin: Sure, Reid as well.

Josh: We might have let our X-factor out too early though by letting Boobie get that 30 yard return in Week 1.

Kevin: Aldon looks good with untucked shirt this season.

Josh: Boldin will get fined for the black shirt. Did you notice the Ravens pads too? I like all black Boldin though.

Kevin: Worth it.

Devin: Concerns: Penalties (11). The run game was only effective late. Harbaugh and the refs (gotta chill a bit). Thought Nnamdi did pretty well, Reid looked great, run D is awesome, D line got pressure, Kap is the man, Boldin and Davis looked great.... Another concern: getting the f@#$ing play off on time.

Josh: Clock management has been the team's weakness the past three years. I'm not as low on Kap as Kevin. I thought he did a nice job and don't forget the balls that Moore and Williams and McDonald dropped. I am a little more concerned about Nnamdi because he missed some tackles and save the third down in the 4th quarter he didn't look great. Missed tackles on the defense was a killer. How many times did Jordy Nelson stretch 5-yard catches into first downs?

Devin: Two of those grabs were amazing and only 1 was on Nnamdi. The other was on Brown and Reid missed a tackle on one. Clock management in Seattle is going to be huge for us.

The Section: Frank Gore averaged 2 yards per carry.

Devin: This was the first time the offense played any significant time together. Could be a little rusty.

Devin: "If intimidation is your game plan, I hope you have a better one." - Colin Kaepernick.

Josh: Great quote.

Josh: Mondays on KNBR after a big Niner win are spectacular too. Anyone concerned about Willis only getting 5 tackles?

Kevin: No. Thought Willis looked good. Don't have data to prove it but seemed like LB's removed the middle of the field pretty effectively. Deep middle, outs and some flats/sidelines aren't P Willis' responsibility in general. Also, I just assume anytime ARog scrambles and sets, that's automatically a 40 yard tip-toe catch for Jordy.

Devin: First game he's played in since the Superbowl. As Kevin said, lots of passes seemed to go outside. Thought they did a nice job of taking the seam routes away.

Josh: Me neither. Just wanted to get a consensus.


Turning to our readers now... your thoughts?