It has been well-documented how vastly improved the Buccaneers are compared to this time a year ago. For starters, their six wins this season are double their win total from 2009. The only thing more impressive than their win total is how they’ve won those games. There have been four come-from-behind wins, of which two came on the road.
Speaking of road success, the Bucs have a 3-1 mark away from the confines of Raymond James Stadium. To put that into perspective, it has been five seasons since the Bucs have had a winning record away from Tampa. In 2005, the Bucs went 5-3 on the road. Since then, they’ve compiled an unimpressive road record of 9-23 heading into this season. Suffice it so say that of all of the great things the Bucs have been able to accomplish this season, turning around their dismal road record is arguably their biggest feat.
So how has it happened?
They’ve solidified their starting quarterback position with the continued maturation of Josh Freeman. They’ve equipped said quarterback with new weapons in receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. They’ve stayed committed to running the ball, especially since the emergence of RB LeGarrette Blount. They’ve forced and capitalized on timely turnovers. And, they’ve had a manageable schedule.
However, for all the road success that the Bucs have had this season, the 49ers have played nearly as well at home, going 3-2 thus far. For what it’s worth, the Niners are a much better team than their overall record would indicate. Four of their six losses have been by three points or fewer, including home losses against the likes of New Orleans and Philadelphia.
In other words, they’ve held their own this season.
Sloppy play and crucial mistakes have been the bane of the Niners’ season, which in turn has forced them to play with their backs against the wall down the stretch run. Heisman-winning QB Troy Smith has emerged as an unlikely source of hope for an otherwise disappointing season in San Francisco. He replaced QB Alex Smith three weeks ago against Denver and since then has thrown for 552 yards and two TDs in two starts, including a 356 yard performance against St. Louis last weekend. TE Vernon Davis and WR Michael Crabtree have the size and speed to give defenses nightmares. And as always, RB Frank Gore will get the bulk of the rushing load, as he has rushed for 778 yards this season.
The 49ers win if…
they limit their mistakes. Ya’ know what the difference is between the Bucs and Niners this season? Three wins and several mistakes. It sounds simple, but how else would you explain the Niners’ four losses by three or fewer points? They have made too many costly errors this season and their record reflects that. They have 19 more penalties and nearly 200 more penalty yards than the Bucs. That and their turnover ratio of -4 to the Bucs’ +5.
The Bucs win if…
their offensive line dominates. The 49ers are only allowing 100.7 rushing yards per game and have sacked opposing quarterbacks 20 times this season. Sometimes their aggressive nature has bitten them in the rear end, but that hasn’t changed who they are. If the Bucs line is able to create a few running lanes and buy Freeman enough time in the pocket, they have a chance to depart from San Francisco with another road win.
Wild card of the game…
special teams. Yes, special teams always has the opportunity to shift the momentum one way or another, but given that there are fairly young quarterbacks leading each team, coupled with the fact that each team has played in so many close contests this season, field position and field goal attempts take on a larger role.
If the game were played on paper (and thank goodness it’s not…that would be boring) the Bucs are the better team of the two, albeit not by much, but better nonetheless. Josh Freeman is a play-maker in every sense of the word and has bailed the Bucs’ offense out of several bad situations this season, as evidenced by his four comeback wins. My gut tells me to expect this game to go down to the wire. After all, these two teams have combined to play in 12 games decided by a touchdown or less. If it stays as close as I think it will, gimme Freeman over Smith any day. BUCS 24–49ERS 20
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