Make or Break for 49ers

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

SEASON PATHWAY COULD BE DETERMINED BY TONIGHT'S GAME WITH THE SAINTS

It may seem a bit overdramatic to suggest that the 2010 season for the San Francisco 49ers hinges on what happens in their Monday Night game this evening with the World champion New Orleans Saints. Overdramatic...BUT TRUE!

San Francisco is staring down perhaps the biggest moment in the Mike Singletary era.

  • They were supposed to step up and be a serious contender in the NFC West this season. Arizona didn't have Kurt Warner any more. Seattle was supposed to be a few years away from contending for a new coach plucked from the colleges. The St. Louis Rams are so bad nobody can take them seriously. THIS was the time for San Francisco to make its move.
  • They were a popular choice to do so, not just because they were in a weak division...but because the pieces were supposedly falling into place. The defense has been very strong. Alex Smith had reportedly started figuring things out at quarterback (though the actual evidence for this was slim!). They weren't going to be just a lucky team in a bad division. They were going to be a force in the playoffs. Some pundits were picking them as Super Bowl darkhorses because of the defense.
  • The early schedule favored a strong start. They would open against a weak Seattle team...catch New Orleans at home when the Super Bowl hangover would still be lingering...then enjoy a soft schedule that included five more games in a weak division, and four games against the struggling AFC West. The rocket may not have launched yet. But, it was all fueled up and NASA had started the countdown.

Then...last week...MISSION ABORTED!

San Francisco looked HORRIBLE in a 31-6 loss at Seattle. The stats weren't as bad as the final score. But, that's because the defense is still good...and that defense held Seattle to 242 total yards. It was the offense that no-showed. The Niners were just 1 of 15 on third down conversions...which should be impossible given modern strategies, schematics, and an opener against a bad team. They set up cheap Seattle points with turnovers. Alex Smith looked more lost than ever, and that's saying something!

This isn't a playoff caliber team. This isn't a .500 caliber team. And, if the Niners don't get their act together in this critical game tonight, we're possibly looking at a 6-10 type season or worse because of the personalities involved. Rocket fuel can cause explosions if you're not careful.

We foreshadowed this possibility in our divisional previews over the summer. San Francisco did have some things going for it. But, let's review the negatives. San Francisco played the 31st ranked schedule last year out of 32 teams. So, whatever they did wasn't as good as it looked.

  • You go 8-8, and that has you knocking on the door of the playoffs. You go 8-8 vs. a horrible schedule, and you're a below average team that caught a break. Maybe in the future the TV and newspaper pundits should spend more time looking at strength of schedule? We've been emphasizing this element to you since the NOTEBOOK debuted on the web many years ago.
  • You earn a +9 turnover differential, and that's a tribute to your defense. But, if you're doing it against one of the weakest schedules possible, it's just a sign that things are about to regress back to even. Note that New Orleans was +11 last year, but did it against the 15th ranked schedule (roughly league average).
  • You convert only 30% of your third down tries on offense, and that's a cause for depression. Frankly, only laughinstocks are that bad. Buffalo was at 26% last year. Kansas City was at 27%. San Francisco was tied with Oakland for third worst in pro football at 30%. That's a list of incompetence you don't want to be on. Buffalo played the 5th toughest schedule, Oakland the 12th, Kansas City the 23rd, and San Francisco the 31st. Who was the biggest laughingstock?

We're only one game into the new season, but the 1 of 15 mark last week suggests this isn't a problem that's been fixed. How are you going to win a division or any playoff games if you can't convert third downs? You regulars know that's one of our "big three"statistics when evaluating NFL teams. It's arguably the coin of the realm in the modern game. San Francisco has a hole in its pocket.

It's not too late to get things settled. Maybe last week was a flat spot. It's easy to look ahead to the Super Bowl champs when the media has been telling you all summer that Seattle is going to be horrible. Maybe the Niners really are playoff contenders and last week was an aberration. Bad games happen, especially right after you've been reading press clippings about how great you are. Mike Singletary certainly made it clear in his post-game tirade that the time is NOW to get it all together. If there's ever going to be a peak performance from this team under this coach, tonight's the night.

That's why this evening's game really is a season-maker in our view. A big win over New Orleans, and everyone's on the same page again. The loss to Seattle is forgotten. It's not like you'll have to go 14-2 or 13-3 to win the NFC West this year. Everyone's going to lose some games. There's confidence again in Alex Smith if he can beat the Saints. The defense is still going to hurt people. A San Francisco victory charts a path to a playoff run.

On the other hand, a loss is devastating. That means the players didn't respond to the tirade, aren't going to get behind Smith at quarterback, and no longer believe they're the "it"team of the 2010 season. Another friendly schedule would make a complete collapse unlikely. But this would just be a group of professionals playing out its schedule rather than destiny's darlings.

JIM HURLEY has been talking to his sources all week about the 49ers mindset. That's the key to this game in his view. Sure, he's looked at the stats with his staff of numbers gurus. He's read over the computer simulation projections from his programmers. He's reviewed the Super Bowl letdown trends, as well as the Thursday-Monday preparation advantage New Orleans enjoys that comes up every so often (the longest non-bye preparation time possible). He conferred with his Wise Guy connections in Las Vegas and offshore to get a feel for how the market's heading. That stuff matters...but mindset is the trump card tonight.

And, JIM HURLEY GOT THE NEWS HE WANTED TO HEAR! You can link up with NETWORK this afternon here at the website to get our Monday Night winner. Game day releases are always up a few hours before kickoff. Or, sign up for a full season of BLUE RIBBON or CLOSED CIRCUIT service and start your package off with tonight's action. It's still early, so THE WINNING IS JUST BEGINNING!

If you'd like more information about service packages or tonight's opinion, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back tomorrow to review misleading final scores from Saturday's college action. We'll crunch all the "big three"NFL numbers for you (rushing yardage, third down conversions, and DRIVE POINTS) on Wednesday. Thursday a new college week starts with Miami of Florida taking on Pittsburgh.

Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's really happening in the world of sports. And, sign up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK to the best plays on the board from handicapping's unstoppable juggernaut!

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Nov

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