By Sam McPherson
Moral victories mean squat in the NFL standings, but they do mean something in terms of confidence and momentum on a week-to-week basis. After losing two games by a combined 65 points, the San Francisco 49ers have now lost the last two games by only 17 points total. That's means momentum and progress for the 1-4 squad as a Week 6 home date with the 1-4 Baltimore Ravens approaches this Sunday, enough for the 49ers to be confident they can break their four-game losing streak at Levi's Stadium against the quarterback and the team that beat them in Super Bowl XLVII.
The Ravens are still favored to beat the 49ers, because Baltimore's four losses this season have come by a combined 17 points. Generally, the Ravens have been in every game they've lost, and the same cannot be said for the 49ers in 2015. San Francisco fell behind 29-3 at halftime against the Pittsburgh Steelers and followed that up with a 31-7 halftime hole against the Arizona Cardinals. However, the last two weeks, the 49ers only trailed by four at the intermission against the Green Bay Packers and seven against the New York Giants, respectively.
Perhaps this is the week that San Francisco once again takes the lead at halftime and goes on to win—like the team did in Week 1 at home against the Minnesota Vikings.
The 49ers quarterback had his best game of the season last week in the loss to the Giants on the road, passing for 262 yards and two touchdowns. It was his best effort in a meaningful game in almost a year, going back to Week 6 of the 2014 season against the St. Louis Rams on the road. Kaepernick has completed 62.9 percent of his passes this season, which would be a career-high mark if it holds for 16 games. After hitting rock-bottom lows against the Cardinals in Week 4 with just nine completions, 67 yards and four interceptions, the 49ers QB has played better since then.
Now, he just needs to take the next step in the progression: winning. Kaepernick used to know how that felt, after posting a 21-8 record in 2012 and 2013 including the playoffs. Since then, however, he's just 9-12 without any playoff starts. Some of this can be attributed to the 49ers' decline on defense, of course, so sooner or later, Kaep has to start winning games on his own. That is the ultimate end to QB development and progress in the NFL.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Last season, the 49ers defense gave up 340 points, and this year, San Francisco is on pace to cough up 448 points. That's a downward trend that few elite QBs are going to be able to overcome. Even though the 49ers surrendered 525 yards to the Giants on Sunday night, they were very close to winning. Clearly, the team can win with Kaep playing well and just an average defense. However, getting even average defense out of the S.F. squad this year has been a tall order.
In Week 1 at home, the spirited defense was stellar, holding the Vikings to just 248 total yards. The 49ers also did well at home in Week 4, keeping the Packers in check with just 362 yards. Home seems to be the best place for the defense, and coming off the effort in the Giants game—where the defense almost did enough to win—there's progress brewing on that side of the ball that needs to carry over to the Levi's Stadium date this Sunday.
This applies to any NFL team, of course, but the 49ers definitely need to stay healthy in order to win in 2015. Remember Week 1 when San Francisco had just one player on the injury report? Perhaps it's no shock that's the only game the 49ers managed to win this year. The longer the season goes on, the more injuries become frequent: that's the nature of the sport. Injuries are not an excuse for losing; however, health certainly can be considered a reason for winning.
Looking forward, San Francisco has a good chance to be healthy for this Ravens contest. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks missed the Giants game due to the death of his sister, and that's clearly bad fortune for his family and his team. Running back Reggie Bush has had calf issues all season, and his presence as a safety outlet in the passing game for Kaepernick is important. Finally, tight end Vernon Davis should be back for the Baltimore game, and in the past, his presence often made the 49ers offense click.
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.
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