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Are the San Francisco 49ers Still Serious Super Bowl Contenders?

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COMMENTARY | Prior to the start of the regular season, the San Francisco 49ers were considered one of the top-three favorites to hoist the Lombardi this upcoming February. They were coming off a conference championship campaign that saw them come up just a few yards short of winning a sixth Super Bowl. Young quarterback Colin Kaepernick was on the rise and the 49ers had just finished putting together one of the better draft classes in the NFL.

Fast forward four months and things have changed a great deal. At 6-4, San Francisco currently possesses the sixth and final seed in the NFC only because of tie breakers against the Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears. Two other teams, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, are currently only one game out of that final spot. In the matter of just over 100 days, San Francisco has gone from legit Super Bowl contenders to fighting for its playoff life.

Fortunately for the 49ers and other teams not considered among the best in the league at this point, all they need is to get into the playoffs to have a shot. While this goes without saying, it's important to look at how the last few Super Bowl champions have performed in the regular season.

The last three Super Bowl winners had to play a full slate of postseason games in order to bring the trophy home. Two of the three, the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens did win their divisions, but the 2010 Green Bay Packers finished in second place in the NFC North. Look at last year as a case study. The Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons were considered the top teams in the NFL during the regular season. Denver lost in its initial playoff game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens, while the Falcons lost at home to your San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Neither San Francisco or Baltimore finished the 2012 season among the top-five teams in the league in terms of overall record.

While it's fine and dandy to look at recent history, most 49ers fans only care about their specific team and how they have performed recently. Coming off a two-game losing streak, San Francisco isn't exactly in an enviable playoff position at this point. As I mentioned before, it possesses the same record as Chicago and Arizona and is only up one game over two other teams.

The good news here is that four of the six teams remaining on San Francisco's schedule currently possess a losing record. Jim Harbaugh's squad is 4-0 against teams with a losing record this season, outscoring them by an average of 35-10 per game. On the other hand, San Francisco is 1-4 against teams who currently own a winning record. If this trend continues, the 49ers will finish the season at 10-6 and have a strong shot at a postseason berth.

With that being said, if San Francisco plays up to the level of its talent, there is no reason to believe that it cannot finish the season with an 11-5 or even a 12-4 record. It's now all about putting everything together and playing good football. How does San Francisco go about doing this?

Take Care of Lesser Opponents

The 49ers have games remaining against the Washington Redskins, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, who have a combined 11-29 record. There is no reason to believe that they won't be able to go undefeated against these teams. All things equal, the 49ers should be able to beat each and every one of them. It will take a combination of an outstanding running game with Frank Gore and continued domination on the defensive side of the ball for this to happen.

One of the primary things to look at, starting with Washington on Monday Night Football , is how San Francisco responds to a losing streak. After being blown out by the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks earlier in the season, the 49ers responded by trouncing their next five opponents in dominating performances. The interesting dynamic here is that four of those games came against much lesser competition with the one exception being a 32-20 home win over the Cardinals. This seems to indicate that the 49ers are more than capable of running off a relatively long winning streak.

Get the Signature Win

It doesn't appear that defeating the Green Bay Packers in the opening game can qualify as a signature win anymore. Green Bay now sits at 5-5 and wasn't necessarily playing great football prior to the Aaron Rodgers injury. Outside of that, the 49ers haven't had that one win that shows everyone that they belong among the best teams in the league. This is going to have to change moving forward.

San Francisco's only shot at earning that signature wins comes a few weeks from now in Week 15 against the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park. While that game won't have any impact on the division race, the 49ers can put Pete Carroll's squad on notice entering the last couple weeks of the season. A win there would go a long way in proving to themselves and the outside world that they belong among the best in the league.

Play Better Football

This may sound like common sense, but the 49ers haven't played a complete game all season long. Even during their five-game winning streak, they struggled in certain aspects of the game. If the 49ers are able to start putting together solid overall games throughout the remainder of the season, there is no reason to believe that they won't enter January as one of the hottest teams in the league.

It all starts and ends with the running game. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman needs to start understanding that the 49ers offense is run based. No longer can they go through a game with Frank Gore touching the ball less than 20 times. The 30-year-old running back still has a lot left in the tank and has been the 49ers best offensive player this season. In order to maintain a competitive advantage against opposing defenses, San Francisco needs to run the ball early and often. More than that, the 49ers cannot abandon the run if it sputters out of the gate. Colin Kaepernick simply isn't in the stage of his career where he can win games on a consistent basis attempting 30-35 passes per outing. In short, the 49ers need to start acting like the No. 6 rushing offense that they are.

Speaking of Kaepernick, the 49ers cannot expect to win games on a weekly basis with the 32nd-ranked passing offense in the NFL. That's just not sustainable. The third-year quarterback has to take some of the blame for San Francisco's lackluster air game, but others need to step up as well. Outside of Anquan Boldin, 49ers receivers have tallied a total of 21 receptions on 50 targets for a ridiculously low 42 percent catch rate. No matter how Kaepernick has performed recently, this unit needs to step up big time.

While unlikely to play this week after suffering a torn Achilles in the spring, Michael Crabtree will likely be back at some point in the next week or two. Even if he's not at 100 percent, Crabtree will be a huge addition to what has been a weak group of wide receivers. Add into the equation Mario Manningham, who is starting to get his sea legs back, and you have two solid possession guys to help Kaepernick down the stretch. Simply put, if the 49ers are unable to improve in the passing game, they will either miss the playoffs or be an early out once January rolls around.

As evidenced by what we have seen in recent seasons, anything can happen once the second season rolls around. Not only does San Francisco have a lot of work to do before it earns a postseason berth, it will need to improve in the aspects I mentioned above if it wants to repeat as conference champions. So the longabout answer to the question posed in the title of this article is an emphatic yes. It's now up to the 49ers to focus on the task at hand and ignore what some of the better teams in the NFC, including the Seattle Seahawks, are doing right now.

Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called "Football Debate Central" with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.

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