With the 49ers pulling away from the rest of the NFC West, the Niners are on the way to their best season in a decade. And with the 26-0 stomping of the Rams last Sunday, where does the team go now? Coach Harbaugh has to keep harping on the little technical stuff while complimenting and instilling confidence in hopes that the 49ers can go somewhere in the playoffs. There’s confidence that we have a good team, but many acknowledge a lack of firepower that will put them over the top against Green Bay and/or New Orleans. With four games left, what should the Niners be trying to accomplish?
Mission #1, above all else: Secure home field advantage.
Winning out the final four games will ensure a first week bye in the playoffs and home field advantage in the divisional round. While three games are against teams with loosing records, they are away games against division rivals. These divisional games are usually hard-fought and tough. The Niners have to beware of any letdown. The lone home game against the Steelers will be a good test, but it’s just one game. If the Niners can go 3-1 over the last four, they’ll end up with a better division and conference record than the Saints; and they’ll get the first round playoff bye.
Mission #2: Improve O-line protection for Alex Smith.
To Smith’s credit, he’s just eating the ball and not making the mistakes (interceptions) that have characterized past seasons. He’s content to just let the defense pick up the slack. This understanding has been essential to the team’s 10-2 record. The team seems more committed than ever to the pass, so adding a few more three step drops and screens to the offense should help keep rushers honest and off-balance.
Mission #3: Make sure the team stays healthy.
While health is mostly based on luck, it can be optimized. Controlling the level of contact in practices and late-game minutes if the Niners hold a sizable lead late, will be an increasingly important variable in the 49ers playoff algorithm. Seeing Patrick Willis go down against the Rams is the kind of high impact injury the 49ers hope to avoid.
Mission #4: Instill playoff mentality.
Harbaugh needs to communicate to the team that mental preparation will be as important as talent or heart. Execution is the sum of preparation + talent + will. And execution will help the Niners beat the league’s toughest teams. Being a psychologist in order to get the most out of each guy is the head coach’s toughest challenge.
Let’s hope that the team continues to improve and understand that this year is all there is. Players, Coaches, and Management, please don’t feel that it’s enough to just get to the playoffs. In the NFL, a new team can rise up to take the Superbowl. The 49ers have to feel urgency that they can do it this year and that nothing is guaranteed next season.
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