By Sam McPherson

The history of the San Francisco 49ers is full of strange highs and strange lows: The team made one playoff appearance in its first 20 years of NFL play, and that one appearance (1957) resulted in the 49ers blowing a 20-point, second-half lead at home against the Detroit Lions. The early 1970s brought fleeting success along with more playoff heartbreak, as San Francisco won three straight NFC West division titles from 1970-72 before losing each time in the postseason to the Dallas Cowboys. The third defeat was painful, as the 49ers coughed up a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead to lose most painfully.

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That defeat sent the S.F. franchise into years of darkness, similar to where the team may be headed now. The 49ers, of course, played in three straight NFC Championship Games from 2011-13 and just missed winning the Super Bowl in 2012. Now, the team is 1-3 and looking very bad on both sides of the ball as it heads into a critical three-game stretch that will decide the franchise’s future fate. If the 49ers lose the next three games to the New York Giants, the Baltimore Ravens and the Seattle Seahawks—all three Super Bowl winners in those 2011-13 seasons, incidentally, as each defeated the 49ers along the way—then San Francisco will need another head coach/quarterback combo like Bill Walsh and Joe Montana to resurrect it again.

The dreams of playing in Super Bowl 50 on their home field all but done now, the 49ers just want to win after three straight ugly losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Arizona Cardinals and the Green Bay Packers, respectively, by a combined 79 points. This six-game stretch is brutal, facing five teams with Super Bowl-winning QBs in six games (and the sixth game facing a 2014 playoff team). It will take a phenomenal team effort to break this losing streak in New Jersey on Sunday night. The big question is whether or not the San Francisco roster has that kind of talent and capability to pull it off, especially on the road against a good team.

Offense Is Ranked 30th In The NFL

Remember when the 49ers had the most dynamic offense in the league? QB Colin Kaepernick’s coming-out party in 2012 was flashy, but in truth, he’s been regressing ever since as NFL defenses figured out his many limitations. Now, San Francisco doesn’t have any other options at the position (unless you count 2011 draft-bust Blaine Gabbert and his 66.8 career QB rating). The 49ers are stuck with Kaep for 2015, and that doesn’t bode well for the team’s chances to win much this season unless the QB suddenly flips a switch or two.

San Francisco has the 32nd-ranked passing game in the league (dead last), throwing for just 158.8 yards per game. The 49ers ranked fifth in rushing, but a lot of that yardage came in the first week against Minnesota. The last three games combined have seen the S.F. running backs gain just 137 yards on a mere 2.6 yards per carry. Kaepernick’s legs have helped, but running QBs don’t win the NFL over the long term. Ask Michael Vick. Ask Robert Griffin III. If Kaep can’t throw the ball effectively, the 49ers are done.

Defense Is Ranked 23rd In The NFL

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The bottom third of the league is not where we have become accustomed to seeing the 49ers defense recently. However, personnel changes in the forms of injuries and retirement have decimated the once-mighty unit that ranked 4th in 2011, 3rd in 2012, 5th in 2013 and 5th again in 2014. The drop from those loftier rankings also shows up in the points allowed category: San Francisco gave up a regular-season average of 17.4 points from 2011-14, and this year that number has ballooned to 27.5 per game. That’s just ugly defense.

Again, the changes in personnel meant everyone knew this was going to happen, and the schedule hasn’t helped, either. By the end of the season, the 49ers defense could be clicking smoothly once more. There are five more games before the bye week, however, and the defense faces Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan in four of those contests. San Francisco doesn’t face a “mediocre” QB until Week 13 in Chicago, and the second half of the schedule (see below) still features matchups against Wilson, Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton and Matthew Stafford. The NFL is quarterback league, and the 49ers picked the wrong season/schedule to rebuild its defense.

Nasty Schedule Means Not A Lot Of Wins

Of course, it’s way too early to be asking this question, but it has to be explored nonetheless: How many games will this S.F. team win in 2015? Chances are the 49ers will lose the next five games against New York (NFC), Baltimore, Seattle, St. Louis and Atlanta. Maybe there’s one upset at home in there against the Ravens, but the other teams are all playoff-caliber teams with goals. Being generous, let’s say San Francisco gets to the bye week with a 2-7 record. The team takes the week off to regroup on both sides of the ball, and then the final eight games go down as follows.

The first game after the bye is in Seattle, and that’s not going to be a win. Then the 49ers host the Cardinals, and it would be a miracle to reverse the earlier 47-7 result against Arizona, even at home. The Week 13 game in Chicago is winnable, however, because of the Bears’ own issues, and perhaps Week 14 in Cleveland is a possible victory, too. Again, being kind, the 49ers now sit at 4-9 with three games to play. The final three games are home against Cincinnati, on the road at Detroit and then at home for the finale against the Rams. There’s one win in there, against either the Lions or St. Louis (depending on the Rams’ playoff chances at that point, perhaps). A 5-11 record would be a great achievement for this team at this point.

That’s how dark it is for the San Francisco 49ers now. Bring the flashlights to Levi’s Stadium, because it’ll be hard to see the bright spots on this team come December and Week 17.

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Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.