There comes a point in every NFL season when a contender knows exactly what it has going.
The San Francisco 49ers are about to reach that point this Sunday, when they meet the Seattle Seahawks. It's a game that won't have much impact on the division race -- Seattle is running away with that at this point -- but it is one that will let us know if San Francisco will ever keep pace with its NFC West rival in the coming years. In other words, we're about to learn if the 49ers will ever be as good as they were over the past two seasons.
This is more a testament to Seattle than it is a knock on San Francisco. The Seahawks have taken a team that was young and promising a year ago and turned it into the best squad in the NFL at the moment. They have everything a head coach would want in a roster -- talented quarterback, strong running game, stingy defense and reliable special teams. It's no coincidence that Seattle, now 11-1, is riding a seven-game winning streak, its only loss coming in Indianapolis on Oct. 6.
One of those victories was a 29-3 beatdown of the 49ers in Week 2 that is even more revealing in hindsight. San Francisco already was vulnerable because of key injuries, especially at wide receiver. But Seattle's dominance that day suggested that there was a greater divide between the two teams, one that had more to do than with just timely circumstances. The Seahawks looked like a team about to see how high it could fly. The 49ers seemed battered and bruised and even doubtful of what it would take to regain their own swagger.
At this stage, San Francisco still feels like a team trying to find itself as the homestretch of the playoffs nears. The 49ers' 8-4 record is solid only when discounting the fact that they've beaten one team that currently has a winning record (Arizona). Even if you give them credit for a Week 1 win over Green Bay with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the 49ers have lost to four teams that are certain to make the playoffs (Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina and New Orleans). The scary part is they've scored a grand total of 39 points in those four defeats.
A loss to Seattle this weekend wouldn't merely give the Seahawks three straight wins in this rivalry. It would alter the entire view of a 49ers team that was destined to run roughshod over the division just two years ago. Head coach Jim Harbaugh took his team to the NFC title game in his first season and the Super Bowl in his second. Few people outside of Washington saw the Seahawks running the 49ers down after that kind of start.
The same 49ers squad that appeared to be set for a long run now has legitimate flaws. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has played better over the past two weeks, but his earlier inconsistency led to San Francisco's running a more conservative offense. The offensive line, one of the best in the NFL, could be hindered Sunday because of injuries (left tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati), and running back Frank Gore is still plagued by a lingering ankle sprain. The team also had to deal with the drama involving Pro Bowl outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who is finding himself after returning from a recent stint in rehab. And those are some of the bigger issues.