The pundits don’t seem to think the 49ers can beat the Steelers Monday night. Perhaps these fellows are right. Fortunately, they are just as apt to be wrong.
Wow. Some eye-popping upsets yesterday. Two games left in the 2011 NFL regular season. In each conference, four teams have made the playoffs and the two remaining qualifiers have yet to be decided.
In the NFC, the enterprises groveling to squeeze their useless teams into the final dance are Seattle, Arizona, the Giants, the Cowboys, and the Lions. Of these teams, the quirky Giants are the only team with a QB good enough to overcome the long odds of making an SB run.
In the AFC, playoff filler involves the AFC West survivor, the Jets, the Bengals, and Tennessee. Of these, only the Jets have the chutzpah necessary for an upset SB entry. A wimpy chutzpah, to be sure. About as viable as their HC’s ability to stare down a buffet and not inhale.
At one point, the 49ers had mesmerized the league into believing they might be capable of reaching the NFC title game and even upsetting the Packers to reach the SB, but that spell has been broken by losses in two of their last three games. It is now trending that they have gone as far as they can go with the talent they have, and it would take a convincing victory over Pittsburgh on Monday night to reverse this view.
The primary cause of slipping support is not the porous O-line or the vulnerable secondary, though these imperfections are duly noted. No, the primary cause is the almost complete disbelief that Alex Smith is a big time QB, one capable of surpassing the sum of the team’s parts to produce a threatening whole.
It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The one factor mitigating the Smith-doubt this year has been Jim Harbaugh and his creative game plans. It is him, and his staff, that have raised the sum parts of the team to a greater whole, not Smith.
This is not to say Smith has not done his part. He has. And done it well. He’s an underrated QB who will continue to get better the longer he stays in Harbaugh’s system and the more his team improves around him. He makes very few mistakes and almost never costs his team a game. But he is also almost never the reason the team wins.
San Francisco is the seventh poorest team in protecting it’s QB. Over the past three games, they have been the worst. Indeed, the NFC West occupies four of the bottom seven spots in sacks given up. The other three NFC West teams, not surprisingly, have all lost their starting QBs to significant injury time this year. Smith is the only one still standing, a testimony to his toughness. He has not missed a game.
Ben Roesthlisberger and Aaron Rogers can overcome poor offensive line play, but Smith and most other QBs, including Tom Brady, cannot. For Smith to be a successful QB, he will need an O-line as good as the one that has played in front of Brady for the past ten years. A dangerous wide receiver would help, too.
Why did Matt Hasselbeck sign with Tennessee and not the 49ers this past offseason? The Titans have given up the second fewest sacks in the league. Even so, Hasselbeck has missed several games to injuries. If he’d signed with the 49ers, he’d probably be in a coma by now.
The current 49er O-line is very young, but very talented. They have a chance to be great. The lack of an offseason has clearly stunted their growth this year. They are not yet ready for Prime Time. And that is the main reason this 49er team will not be going to the SB this year. When the O-line finally gels, Smith will be one of the best QBs in the league. And fully capable of taking this franchise back to the ultimate glory.
Which is not to say the 49ers can’t beat the Steelers tonight. They can. And they will.