Braylon Edwards

49ers enjoy a very productive ‘improvement week’

The last time we saw the San Francisco 49ers on an NFL field, Jim Harbaugh upset Jim Schwartz when he followed exuberant handshake with a slap to Schwartz’s back. On Sunday, Harbaugh would be completely justified if before facing the Cleveland Browns he walked up to Browns coach Pat Shurmur and followed a much warmer handshake with one of those one-armed man hugs.

First, Shurmur left his position as offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, who’ve subsequently sunk from 2011 preseason darlings to possibly the worst team in the NFL. Second, and more recently, Shurmur’s Browns beat the Seattle Seahawks 6-3 to further solidify the Niners’ playoff expectations.

According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers (who now have a 3-game lead in the NFC West over the Seahawks, a 4-game lead over the Arizona Cardinals and a 5-game edge on the Rams) now have a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs, up 0.6% after Cleveland’s helpful — albeit ugly — win.

99.6%. That’s even higher than Green Bay’s 99.3% chance of playing games in January, even though the defending champs are the league’s only undefeated team and also enjoy the highest point-differential at +89 (the Rams have the worst at -115).

Counting chickens…

99.6% is a fantastic, nearly unfathomable number considering the 49ers weren’t good enough to succeed in their crappy division last year, but it’s a number that exists in a vacuum; if the Browns come into San Francisco and pull off an upset (currently the Niners are between somewhere between 9-point and 10.5-point favorites depending on where you look) their playoff odds creep down a bit.

While the Browns aren’t known for playing television-friendly games these days, they’re actually ahead of the 49ers in yards per game on offense (308.3 to 302.5), even though Cleveland’s rushing offense is worse than mediocre (3.3 ypc, 91.5 ypg and only 2 TD). However, where Cleveland shines is on defense, especially against the pass (172 ypg allowed, 2nd in the NFL).

However, for perhaps the first time since Week 1 the 49ers are preparing for a game they should win — a home game after a week of rest against a Browns squad with a 3-3 record that’s less impressive when you look at where their wins came from:

Week 2 @ Indianapolis: 27-19

Week 3 vs. Miami: 17-16

Week 7 vs. Seattle: 6-3 (because Phil Dawson kicked field goals of 52 and 53 yards)

Much of the conversation leading up to Sunday afternoon’s game will center on two players who may be coming back from injury: Peyton Hillis (who’s day-to-day with a hamstring injury after missing the game against Seattle) and Braylon Edwards (who’s practicing in hopes of getting his contract year going against his former team). But since the Niners can stop every living running back with relative ease these days, Hillis’ possible return shouldn’t be a huge concern.

During the bye week “improvement week,” the 49ers have had time to make up some of the time they lost during the lockout. On defense they might be working on anything from more creative blitz packages (possibly involving Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, who’ve been looking better as the season’s gone on), and on offense they’re probably fine-tuning blocking schemes and techniques to push their offensive line (and rushing attack) closer to Harbaugh’s presumed goal of becoming the NFL’s version of Stanford.

Almost as much as the technical aspects of blocking and tackling, it’ll be interesting to see how successful Harbaugh and his staff are at keeping the Niners hungry and humble. Hearing that your team has a near 100% chance of making the playoffs can change things, now the test is beating a team they should handle even though beating them won’t increase those playoff odds — simply because improving from 99.6% is almost impossible.

If Harbaugh’s team is successful, he should forego the postgame handshake entirely and instead present Shurmur with some San Francisco-themed gift basket. May I suggest some Blue Bottle coffee, authentic sourdough bread and a couple six-packs of Big Daddy IPA?

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