The 49ers have won three straight games, including a comeback performance on the road Monday night against the St. Louis Rams.
San Francisco is playing tough defense, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been as effective as he’s ever been since winning the starting job.
Yet going into Sunday night’s nationally televised game against the defending AFC champion Broncos in Denver, the 49ers are decided underdogs. The Broncos are 7-point favorites of oddsmakers, while NFL pundits and analysts all have jumped on the Denver bandwagon in this one.
At NFL.com, for instance, all five writers picking games this weekend are going with the Broncos.
Of course, there are good reasons for the Niners to be the underdog. They’re on the road at altitude in a short preparation week; standout inside linebacker Patrick Willis is out, and so, too, should be guard Mike Iupati and defensive back Jimmie Ward; the 49ers’ pass rush – a must against Broncos QB Peyton Manning -- has been inconsistent; and the Denver defense has been solid against the run, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry, fifth best in the NFL.
Still, the 49ers have been a resilient group that has rebounded from a 1-2 start and injuries and absences of key players to regain momentum. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is very familiar with Manning, and may be able to come up with a scheme to help slow him down. San Francisco’s defense has been a surprising unit, coming up with big plays at unexpected times from unexpected players.
Plus, Kaepernick and the 49ers offense have been scoring points. The run game was dominant in wins over the Eagles and Chiefs, and then the passing game took the lead role in the win over the Rams.
Denver head coach John Fox told reporters this week that the 49ers balance – as well as Kaepernick’s ability to break down defenses with his running ability – makes it very difficult to defend them.
“They have both ways to come at you,” Fox said. “You try to create balance in this league because people can lean on one dimension or the other, so I think it’s a very good roster offensively. You have a very good offensive line; a Pro Bowl tight end; you’ve added receivers with 1,000-yard seasons; you’ve got a couple of capable backs; and Colin is a guy who can hurt you with his legs as well as arm.”
To run their winning streak to four, the 49ers will have to play their best game to date.