It seems like less than a month ago that the San Francisco 49ers looked like the best team in football. That’s because it was. On Dec. 16, the 49ers took a 31-3 lead over the New England Patriots, and Ray Ratto tweeted this:
That’s not some throwaway comment from @Joe49erzrule with a #NinerEmpire hashtag. Ratto isn’t prone to knee-jerk optimism, and at the time it was hard to disagree with his assessment.
These days, the 49ers have more reasons why they can’t win it all. Justin Smith partially tore his triceps within an hour of Ratto’s tweet. Mario Manningham, the team’s No. 2 receiver, was lost for the season a week later in Seattle, where the 49ers suffered their most embarrassing defeat since Jim Harbaugh took over. The win over Arizona to end the regular season wasn’t as dominant as the faithful would like. Frank Gore hasn’t dominated a game in months, and Vernon Davis has been a ghost since Colin Kaepernick’s first start against Chicago.
As a result, people are steeling themselves for 49ers failure. Yesterday I went to one of the several “health food” stores in my neighborhood to grab a bagel and some Emergen-C. (Not because I’m sick, but because it makes me think I’m healthier. That’s probably a ridiculous thing to think, but I like the taste.) In case this San Francisco phenomenon doesn’t exist in your town, a “health food” store is a place that features a bulk section, potato and tortilla chips that don’t come from Frito-Lay, a wide variety of Kombucha drinks, and plenty of microbrews, wines and gourmet ice cream options.
In San Francisco, “healthy” and “expensive” are often interchangeable.
Anyway, this particular store often has a guy working the register with a thick accent who happens to be a huge 49ers fan. Always has the Sporting Green spread out on the counter, and he’s always down to chat Niners for several minutes (unless he has an impatient customer waiting in line behind me).
The one constant in our conversations: is he’s a very tough critic when it comes to his favorite team. He liked Kaepernick more than Alex Smith last year (he wasn’t even sold on Smith during the week between the win over the New Orleans Saints and the NFC Championship Game). However, that doesn’t mean he’s confident going into this weekend.
“I think next year, with Kaepernick, they are the team to beat,” he said, emphasizing his favorite quarterback’s surname. “This year, I am not so sure.”
It seems like the vast majority of 49ers fans I’ve talked to over the past weekend feel this way. In order to deal with the anxiety caused by seeing Aaron Rodgers play at Candlestick Park for the first time, they’re focusing on hating the Seattle Seahawks (with mixed results). Playoff dominance is hard to imagine at this point, even though it was a near-certainty during that first half in Foxboro.
The line for Saturday evening’s NFC Divisional Round game against the Packers started with the 49ers at -3, and it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see that line move in Green Bay’s direction as the week progresses.
In effect, this is the same role the 49ers found themselves in last year, when they were favored by 3.5 points against the Saints heading into their NFC Divisional Round game but still seemed like underdogs. After a 2012 season where San Francisco played in the league’s best division and battled through a much more difficult schedule than last year’s, the 49ers’ flaws have been exposed. They aren’t a juggernaut by any stretch — they’re just a squad with a strong defense, a young and unproven quarterback, a dwindling list of skill position players led by Michael Crabtree, and a special teams unit that can best be described as extremely shaky.
On the other hand, the team that probably scared them most (the New York Giants) failed to make the playoffs, and there isn’t a dominant team still playing — in either conference. Besides a strong second half by the Seahawks in Washington, nobody looked all that great during the Wild Card round, and the Atlanta Falcons are hardly a proven team when it comes to winning in January.
That’s why I picked the 49ers to go all the way, warts and all. Whenever the 49ers have looked ready to roll through the rest of the season, cresting the wave of a long winning streak into the postseason, they’ve been upended. Yet when questioned by the masses, Harbaugh’s group always answers with a win that starts the bandwagon rolling again. It’s been a difficult season, but they only thing they haven’t done is win three games in a row. I still believe they can (as long as Justin Smith can play), but there are fewer likeminded people out there today than there were at 7:36 pm on Dec. 16.