Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick has played well in recent games but is wary of the Bucs defense he faces Sunday. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
The 49ers know what they’re getting Sunday at Tampa Bay.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick looks at the Bucs and doesn’t see a 4-9 football team. He sees a team that has won four of its past five, leads the NFL with 21 interceptions, has a strong secondary with cornerback Darrelle Revis and ex-49er safety Dashon Goldson and an aggressive pass rush (31 sacks).
Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David – among the NFL’s best in tackles – ranges all over the field and has six sacks and five interceptions. He’s the first linebacker in league history to have that many sacks and picks in the same season.
Kaepernick says that if the 49ers don’t take the Bucs seriously, they could be in trouble.
“I would just say that they’re a high-pressure team, high-volume pressure,” Kaepernick told 49ers.com this week. “Probably more pressure than we’ve seen all year. There’s times when they won’t pressure, but they create a lot of unrest, get the quarterback off his spot, kind of get him under duress, that kind of thing. And their secondary’s playing very well.”
Sunday’s matchup seems like a classic NFL trap game, with the 49ers coming off a big, emotional victory over the Seahawks, then having to fly across country to take on a team with a losing record.
But if the 49ers want to get into the postseason, a victory over the Bucs would be important. After winning three straight to get to 9-4, the Niners are tied with Carolina for the No. 1 wild-card spot. Winning out against the Bucs, Falcons and Cardinals to finish at 12-4 and perhaps earn the No. 5 playoff seed instead of the No. 6 seed could set up a more advantageous position in the postseason.
By earning the fifth seed, the 49ers would potentially set up a Round 2 game against the Saints – the likely No. 2 seed – if San Francisco were to win its first-round game. The sixth seed would likely have to go to Seattle on the second weekend of the playoffs vs. the No. 1 seed Seahawks.
And, staying away from Seattle for as long as possible is a good thing. As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted recently, the ’Hawks are 14-0 at home since 2012 and have outscored the 49ers by 55 points in two games at CenturyLink Field.
So, a victory over the Bucs Sunday is imperative.
Said 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh this week, of San Francisco’s goals right now: “Well, win the next game. Win games in December. Those count just as much as the other games do, but where we’re at, we’ve got to win football games.”
The Bucs feast off turnovers – they lead the league – so Kaepernick knows he and the offense have to be careful with the football. He can’t throw interceptions, the way he did early in the season (five picks in his first six games). He has to continue on his more recent pace, in which he’s thrown just three picks in seven games.
“They have a great secondary,” Kaepernick said of the Bucs. “A lot of talent back there.”
If they can hold on to the ball, the San Francisco offense – which has been much more explosive over the three-game winning streak – and its fourth-ranked NFL defense should be too much for the Bucs. If they get careless, the Bucs could make them pay. Now on a roll, Tampa Bay wants to show its 0-8 start isn’t the measure of this team. A victory over San Francisco would do that.
“It’d be showing people that those games aren’t flukes,” Bucs linebacker Adam Hayward said of Tampa’s recent victories. “It’d be nice to prove we’re a legitimate team.”
The 49ers have been made 4½-point favorites by NFL oddsmakers.