By Sam McPherson
The NFL’s version of the Bay Bridge rivalry has changed a bit, since the San Francisco 49ers moved to Santa Clara—you no longer need to drive across any bridge to get from Levi’s Stadium to the Coliseum. But when you throw in the recent rumors about Jim Harbaugh, the game between the 49ers and the Oakland Raiders coming up on Sunday suddenly has a lot more intrigue.
San Francisco is fighting for its playoff life right now, buried in third place among the NFC West contenders—and a game out of the final playoff spot in the conference. Coming off a humiliating loss of their own—at home to the hated Seattle Seahawks—the 49ers will be looking to get back on track against the 1-11 Silver & Black squad from up the Bay.
Expect the rivalry to be full blown this week—on the field and in the stands, too.
The 49ers come into the game with a 7-5 record. San Francisco started 1-2 before rallying for six wins in the next eight games, but the team has been outscored this year by 13 points overall. Plus, the 49ers are just 1-3 in their division; they’ve lost to every team in their group.
San Francisco has wins over Dallas, Philadelphia, Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, New York (NFC) and Washington. The 49ers have lost to Chicago, Arizona, Denver, St. Louis and Seattle. They’re an up-and-down team lacking consistency, so you never know what you will get when they take the field.
49ers on Offense
San Francisco is just 22nd in the league in total offense, and the problems start with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He always has had flaws in his game, as his mediocre 60.3% career completion percentage highlights, and Kaep isn’t improving at all. In fact, he’s getting worse. That’s what happens when you spent the offseason kissing your biceps and being distracted with photo shoots instead of watching game film and developing your skill set.
The Niners are 12th in the league in rushing, however, so look for them to really try and pound the Raiders defense. They have two running backs capable of carrying that load: veteran Frank Gore and rookie Carlos Hyde. Once their running game gets going, Kaepernick can be more effective throwing the ball and even running it himself.
49ers on Defense
San Francisco has been hit hard in the injury department here, especially at linebacker where they now are missing two Pro Bowl players (NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis). That makes it hard for the 49ers to keep up with the best offensive teams in the league, like the Broncos or the Seahawks—each team beat them easily by double digits.
Somehow, the 49ers are still fourth in overall defense, though, and they’ve played in several close games because the defense kept them close while the offense struggled. Seven of their games have been decided by eight points or less: San Francisco has won five of those games.
49ers Players to Watch
As noted above, Kaepernick—and often his legs—make this offense go, not the QB’s arm. So watch the running back duo for San Francisco, and if they’re making first downs readily, it’ll be a long day for the Oakland defense. But also watch tight end Vernon Davis: Once the lynch pin for this offense’s ability to quick strike, he’s all but disappeared this year (23 catches, 210 yards) due to Kaep’s struggles throwing the ball.
Defensively, linebacker Chris Borland has been amazing, totaling 87 tackles so far this year. He seems to always be near the ball. Also, three different players lead the 49ers with five sacks apiece, so you’re never quite sure where that pass rush is going to come from. If the S.F. defense can get to Oakland QB Derek Carr easily, that’s not good for the Raiders, obviously.
The Silver & Black are coming off a 52-0 beating at the hands of the Rams, who split with the 49ers this year already. S.F. lost 19-3 to the Seahawks at home in a game that wasn’t even that close. Both teams are licking their wounds.
But the 49ers have more to play for, of course, and they have more talent—plain and simple. Three straight trips to the conference title game demonstrate that, and even if S.F. misses the postseason this year, the roster still is in good shape for 2015.
The Raiders can’t say the same right now. Look for the 49ers to win by double digits.
For more Raiders news and updates, visit Raiders Central.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on a Examiner.com.