At the halfway point of the 2011 NFL season, Hell has frozen over, the sun now rises in the west, and the San Francisco 49ers sit atop the NFC West standings. Shit, Martha, have I died and gone to Heaven?
In the second half of the season, the team has five division games and three games against NFL powerhouse teams. They should win all five division games, but the games against the heavyweights will define their league-wide status.
Thus far, the 49ers have defeated three teams with winning records and four teams with losing records. None of the three winning teams is considered a powerhouse. Two of them are early season surprises (Cincinnati and Detroit) and the third is a good, not great team (Tampa Bay).
The strength of the team is the defense, which has given up the fewest points in the NFL thus far. And the special teams, which have consistently won the field position battle. The combination of good defense and special teams has given the offense a whole lot of short fields and increased opportunities to score.
The offense itself has certainly been unique and entertaining, if not overwhelming or lethal. It seems to do just enough each week to win. This is not a bad thing, and is certainly better than just enough to lose. But there is definitely room for improvement, especially in the passing game, which ranks ahead of only Denver and Jacksonville in yards per game. The offense as a whole ranks 27th in yards, but 8th in points per game, thanks to all those short fields.
When the offense needs to go 80 yards to score, it generally doesn’t. Unless it’s the 4th quarter and it has to, and then it generally does. Need based offense.
The NY Giants come to Candlestick this coming Sunday and they are probably feeling pretty full of themselves after knocking off the Patriots in Foxboro, with Eli Manning out-dueling Tom Brady down the stretch. They probably think Eli can surely out-duel Alex Smith down the stretch, too. But can he? The Patriots defense is awful, a bottom feeder squad. The 49er defense is quite a bit better.
Interestingly, Eli and Smith lead the league in 4th quarter comeback victories. Eli has 5, Smith has 3. Since the Giants have won six games, it appears they have been behind in the fourth quarter in five of those six games. The 49ers have won seven games and trailed in the fourth in only three of them.
These useless stats point to the temptation to opine that each team will be behind at some point in the 4th quarter, or at least the Giants will be. A nail-biter deluxe. Personally, I’d prefer a game like the Tampa Bay mauling, but that might be pushing the envelope on the wish list.
Whoever wins this game will have the tie breaker advantage for what could be the battle for the second seed in the NFL playoffs. There is no greater testimony to the success of the first half of this season than the ability to reasonably discuss the second seed in the same sentence as the San Francisco 49ers.