When the season began, 49er fans had fairly low expectations for the team’s success this year. The focus was mainly on seeing an improved offense and a team that looked better and better as the year played out. St. Louis and Arizona were expected to battle for the division title, with the Seahawks and 49ers duking it out in the basement.
Four games into the season, those perceptions have been turned on their heads. The Rams are in the basement, the Seahawks and Cardinals are staggering in the middle, and the 49ers are sitting atop the division. In order to maintain this pretty picture, the 49ers need to beat the Tampa Bay Bucs Sunday at Candlestick.
The perception of this game has also changed from the beginning of the season. Most viewed this game on the schedule as a loss. After the stunning victory over the Eagles last week, this game is now seen as very winnable.
If the 49ers are up to the task this weekend, they will have accomplished the improbable feat of beating teams from the AFC North, NFC East, and NFC South in consecutive weeks. Not too shabby for a team few figured would be competitive this year.
The game itself will probably be a blue collar brawl between two teams that like to grind their way to victory. The scenario for this game is much the same as last year. The 49er were coming off two straight victories then, both last minute thrillers, and were expected to beat the Bucs and get back into the NFC division race. Instead, the 49ers were methodically crushed 21-0, the first home shut out loss since 1977, and the air went out of the 49er balloon but good.
The big queston for this game is whether the 49ers are for real or are just a team with some fluky success which will be exposed by the methodical, mano a mano Bucs. With the Bucs, you know what you’re getting — a team that plays hard for 60 minutes and doesn’t beat itself. The 49ers have yet to form a discernible image. They remain a work in progress.
The 2011 picture looks quite rosy for the 49ers now, but a loss to the Bucs would just about guarantee a loss again next week against the Lions, and the team would stagger into the Bye week with a 3-3 record. That might be good enough to hold a tenous lead in the NFC West, but it wouldn’t be good enough to get real excited about the team’s chances this year for excellence, or even a trip to the playoffs.
Right now, 49er fans are riding high on the “I can’t believe we beat the Eagles” cloud. You can be sure that happy cloud will dissipate in a hurry if the team lays an egg against the Bucs. Simply put, the 49ers should win this game. They are at home, the Bucs played a Monday Night game and are travelling cross country on a short week. The Bucs are a good team, but by no means a great team. There’s no excuse for the 49ers to lose.
So, four games into the season, and we’ve gone from passive interest to demanding a win. That’s progress and that’s the burden of expectations the 49ers have to assume and fulfill. Do they have it in them? We shall see Sunday.