Radar Week 15: 49ers @ Buccaneers

Colin Kaepernick (Getty Images)

With just three games remaining, the 49ers cannot afford any slip ups as they hold on to the NFC's last playoff seed. But there's a chance they can jump the Carolina Panthers and earn the fifth spot, which would benefit them if they hope to make a third-straight deep run in the playoffs. Inside we take a long look at the team's strengths and weaknesses before Sunday's game in Tampa Bay.

Statistics Through Week 15

Offense (rank):

Points per game: 24.3 (#11) previous week: 24.8 (#10)

Yards per game: 311.5 (#28) previous week: 311.0 (#28)

Passing yards (per game): 178.3 (#32) previous week: 180.2 (#31)

Rushing yards (per game): 133.2 (#6) previous week: 130.8 (#7)

3rd-down conversion rate: 36.78 percent (#16) previous week: 36.65 percent (#19)

Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 59.52 percent (#7) previous week: 61.54 percent (#5)

Defense (rank):

Points per game: 16.5 (#3) previous week: 16.4 (#3)

Yards per game: 310.2 (#4) previous week: 314.0 (#5)

Passing yards (per game): 206.2 (#4) previous week: 208.5 (#5)

Rushing yards (per game): 104.0 (#10) previous week: 105.5 (#11)

3rd-down conversion rate: 34.43 percent (#6) previous week: 33.92 percent (#6)

Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 52.94 percent (#11) previous week: 53.12 percent (#14)

Misc.:

Turnover margin: +6 (24 takeaways, 18 giveaways) previous week: +6 (23 takeaways, 17 giveaways)

Penalties per game: 6.5 (#17) previous week: 6.4 (#16)

Penalty yards per game: 55.2 (#18) previous week: 54 (#16)

NFC West Standings (record, division)

Seattle Seahawks (11-2, 3-1)

San Francisco 49ers (9-4, 4-1)

Arizona Cardinals (8-5, 1-3)

St. Louis Rams (5-8, 1-4)

NFC Playoff Standings (record, conference)

1. Seattle (11-2, 8-1)

2. New Orleans (10-3, 8-1)

3. Philadelphia (8-5, 7-2-3)

4. Detroit (7-6, 6-4)

5. Carolina (9-4, 7-3)

6. San Francisco (9-4, 6-3)

In the Hunt

7. Arizona (8-5, 5-5)

8. Chicago (7-6, 4-6)

9. Dallas (7-6, 6-3)

10. Green Bay (6-6-1, 4-5-1)

What It Means

The 49ers lacked one thing in during this uneven 2013 season: a signature win early in the year. In 2011, it was Week 4's 20-point comeback against the "Dream Team" Eagles. In 2012, it was the season-opening win in Green Bay against a Packers team that finished the previous season 15-1.

But in 2013, that signature win didn't come until this past week when they beat the Seahawks to put a certain narrative on hold, at least until the 49ers have to go back to Seattle to win a game in January. That type of galvanizing victory has eluded San Francisco all season. Injuries, indefinite leave of absences, a schedule laced with cupcakes or a blow to the head/neck area of a quarterback have all contributed to a strange regular season. Through their first 12 games, the 49ers looked like a good team reaching for the next rung of the ladder but coming up with air.

Sunday's game was the season's the first reminder the 49ers are a team to be weary of in the postseason once again. The unique hurdle they face this time around is being a Wild Card team, forced to come up with playoff magic away from Candlestick Park. Have their two-straight deep runs into January worn them down, or are they the callused group that's more mentally prepared for the challenge than any other team in the conference?

We'll know more this weekend in Tampa Bay, because San Francisco has a good chance of showing the league two things. A: the win over Seattle took a ton of energy and that will bleed into a poor performance against an inferior opponent. Or B: being humbled by the Seahawks, Panthers, Saints and Colts has given the team its first real feeling of urgency in the regular season since Harbaugh took over in 2011.

Injuries are no longer an issue. The 49ers are the healthiest they've been all season. Mike Iupati returned to practice Wednesday while Garrett Celek and Tarell Brown were taken off the injury report for the first time in weeks.

Strengths

According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers are fourth in the NFL in defensive drive success rate, a metric measuring the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown. San Francisco trails only Baltimore, Kansas City and Cincinnati. Fitting given the 49ers are third and fourth in opponents' scoring and yards respectively. This metric quantifies their ability to get off the field.

The Seahawks' longest drive in the second half went 34 yards Sunday. But their only points in came off a field goal following a 14-yard drive set up by Golden Tate's 38-yard punt return. The 49ers yielded just 83 net yards to Seattle in the second half after allowing 152 combined over their consecutive touchdown drives in the second quarter.

San Francisco is the No. 4 team in the league against the pass, which is impressive considering the turnover on the back end of the defense over the last two seasons. For the last few weeks, two of the team's three corners in their sub package are relative newcomers in Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright. But they haven't seen the drop off that would be expected. Since the bye week, only the Saints on their home field have passed for more than 200 yards against this defense.

Offensively, the 49ers have continued to turn things around. While the passing yards might not have been there Sunday, San Francisco's 163 rushing yards were its most since the bye week.

The give and take between the running game and passing game has been both good and bad. The improved passing numbers against Washington and St. Louis have meant less rushing attempts for Frank Gore. But against Seattle, it was the 163 rushing yards that carried most of the load (San Francisco had just 155 net passing yards against the Seahawks).

There's little doubt Michael Crabtree's addition has improved the team's balance offensively. But opponents are still stacking the box and forcing the 49ers to take their shots down the field. Sunday, Colin Kaepernick rebounded from his terrible Week 2 performance in Seattle to complete a modest 15 of 29 for 175 yards, a touchdown and an interception. But more importantly, he authored five scoring drives while the team punted just four times (he also threw a red-zone interception) against the league's best defense.

The 49ers scored just one touchdown in three trips to the red zone, but it was still a productive enough day from Kaepernick to get the win. Over his last three games (with Crabtree back in the last two), Kaepernick has a 103.1 passer rating, marking his best three-game run of the season.

Areas to Improve

If Gerald McCoy's comments to local media this week are any indication, the Bucs' plan to stop the 49ers offense hinges on slowing Gore. Without his 51-yard burst at the end of Sunday's win, Gore had 59 yards on 16 carries, averaging less than four yards per game. His previous three-game stretch was his worst since his rookie season when he backed up Kevin Barlow in 2005.

It might not be a coincidence that Gore's struggles have come at the same time of Mike Iupati's three-week absence. The former Pro-Bowler is the team's best pulling lineman and huge contributor in the running game.

Iupati is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Buccaneers after returning to practice this week. Jim Harbaugh termed his week of practice as "Good" and declared him a possibility to start in Sunday's game.

Looking Ahead

The 49ers are 7-0 against teams that are currently .500 or worse for the season. But none of those wins have come off games as physical and emotional as their two-point win over the Seahawks. And the last time San Francisco followed up a game against Seattle, the team lost 27-7 to visiting Colts in Week 3.

With the 49ers hanging on to the No. 6 seed in the playoff picture, their margin of error is uncomfortably thin with three games remaining. All three are in-conference as they sit just a game ahead of the Arizona Cardinals, who aren't going away easily.

The Cardinals have a winnable game at Tennessee Sunday before going to Seattle for a crucial game the next week, which might not mean a whole lot for the Seahawks should they beat the 5-8 Giants on the road Sunday and clinch the division and a first-round bye.

For the 49ers, a win in Tampa would give them 10 on the year and keep them in the running for the No. 5 seed with the Carolina Panthers, who still have to play the Saints at home after getting the Jets this week. San Francisco must finish with a better record than Carolina, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker after their win over the 49ers in Week 10.

As it currently stands, the 49ers are the No. 6 seed would have to travel to play the 8-5 Eagles in the first round and then Seattle if they were to advance. If they jump into the fifth seed, they could would set themselves up for a winnable game in either Detroit or Chicago. Both teams are 7-6, but the Lions have won both meetings giving them the tie-breaker. A first-round win would force another game in New Orleans, where San Francisco feels it got robbed the first time around. They won both their meetings against Drew Brees' team since Harbaugh took over prior to Week 11's controversial loss, including the Divisional Round of the playoffs in 2011.

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