NFL Preview - San Francisco (9-4) at Tampa Bay (4-9)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - As noted by San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh, December games count for just as much as contests from earlier in the season.
But with the reigning NFC champions in a tight battle for a playoff spot, the 49ers' games this month certainly come with added pressure.
After picking up a victory last weekend over one of the top teams in the conference, San Francisco tries to stretch its winning streak to four straight games this Sunday as it visits the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Back-to-back losses in mid-November by the Niners opened the door for the Seattle Seahawks to build an advantage atop the NFC West. San Francisco, though, closed out the month with a win at Washington and has bested St. Louis and Seattle at home to begin December.
The 49ers' 19-17 win over the Seahawks, who have already clinched a playoff spot, prevented Seattle from clinching the division. At 9-4, San Francisco is two games back of the Seahawks with three games to play.
The Niners and Carolina Panthers own the conference's two wild card spots with matching records. The Arizona Cardinals are a game back at 8-5, while Chicago and Dallas are two games off the pace.
"Well, win the next game," said Harbaugh when asked of his club's goals. "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 49ers can clinch a playoff spot this weekend with a victory and a loss by Arizona and Dallas, or a win and a loss by the Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles.
San Francisco rode the leg of kicker Phil Dawson in last Sunday's win as he was good on all four of his field goal attempts. That includes the game- winning 22-yarder with 26 seconds left that was set up by Frank Gore's 51-yard run.
Dawson has converted each of his past 20 field goal attempts, a franchise record.
Gore rushed for 110 yards and Colin Kaepernick threw for 175 yards on 15-of-29 passing. He was picked off once and also found tight end Vernon Davis for an eight-yard touchdown pass as the Niners won for the eighth time in their last 10 games.
"We still have a lot to learn, but that's a good thing. Beating a team like Seattle and still not playing our best game, that's great," said Gore. "We knew it was going to be a tough game. We both know each other and I'm happy we got the job done."
The Buccaneers were able to get the job done last Sunday in a 27-6 victory over the Buffalo Bills. Running back Bobby Rainey broke off an 80-yard touchdown run just 18 seconds into the game and the defense came up with seven sacks and four interceptions.
Rainey rushed for 127 yards in all and set a club record for quickest score ever at the beginning of a game.
"It's always great to go down in history, but just got to move forward and worry about the next game now," said the running back. "Right now I'm going to enjoy it and then it's back to work for 49ers next game."
Thanks to the solid defensive effort, led by linebacker Lavonte David's nine tackles, one sack and two interceptions, the Buccaneers won for the fourth time in five games following an 0-8 start despite quarterback Mike Glennon completing just 9-of-25 pass attempts for 90 yards. He did manage two touchdown passes and was also intercepted twice.
The victory was Tampa Bay's third straight at home and it will close out its 2013 schedule at Raymond James Stadium before ending the season with games at St. Louis and New Orleans.
"Good team victory, one that the guys will enjoy here and then we've got a huge challenge to try to win four straight at home here to end the season. That's something that our players really want to do and we've got to work to get that accomplished." said Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano.
The Buccaneers have lost three of their last four versus the Niners, including a 48-3 setback in the most recent meeting on Oct. 9, 2011 in San Francisco.
However, the Bucs won 35-3 the last time the clubs met in Tampa on Nov. 21, 2004.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The 49ers didn't have the best of offensive showings last weekend, notching just 318 net yards of offense, but the defense held the Seahawks to 264 yards in total and its third-ranked ground game to just 86.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman led the Niners with nine tackles and also had a sack and forced fumble. He is fourth in football with 120 tackles and his sack was his fourth of the season.
Overall, San Francisco is ranked third in the NFL with 16.5 points allowed per game and fourth in total defense at 308.0 yards allowed per game.
Led by Gore, the Niners' sixth-ranked ground game (133.2 YPG) totaled 163 yards versus the Seahawks to offset Kaepernick's struggles. Though held without a rushing touchdown, San Francisco is still tied for second in the league with 16 rushing TDs, eight of those by Gore, who is 69 yards shy of his seventh career 1,000-yard rushing season.
When Kaepernick is on point, he is usually looking towards Davis and wide receiver Anquan Boldin. The duo have combined to catch all 16 of Kaepernick's touchdown passes this season, with Davis hauling in 11 of them.
Davis, second on the club with 44 receptions and 726 yards, has caught a scoring pass in four straight games and ranks eight among tight ends all-time with 51 TD receptions.
Kaepernick and his receivers will have to keep their eye on Bucs safety Dashon Goldson, a hard-hitter who made two Pro Bowls while spending his first six seasons with the Niners. He signed a reported five-year, $41.25 million deal with Tampa Bay in the offseason.
"Dashon's a great player, does a lot of great things. Has a lot of range on the back end," said Kaepernick of his former teammate, who has 57 tackles and an interception in 10 games this season, missing a Nov. 24 tilt versus Detroit while serving a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit against Atlanta the previous weekend.
San Francisco will also have to be aware of David, who himself is putting together an excellent season. He ranks just behind Bowman in tackles with 117 and has logged six sacks and five interceptions this season.
David, in his second season out of Nebraska, is one of only four players in NFL history to record six sacks and five picks in the same season and the first linebacker.
"I think he is playing as well as any linebacker in the league, I really do," said Schiano. "He does everything: tackle, (defend the) pass, blitz. There's nothing that guy can't do. He's a really fine football player and, as I've said before, just even a better person. You can't ask for a better work ethic, everything about the guy. He's special."
David is aiming to become the second player in Bucs history to record an interception in four straight games, joining defensive back Harry Hamilton in 1988.
The Bucs rank first in the NFL with 21 interceptions and 29 takeaways, and are second with a plus-13 turnover differential. They have multiple takeaways in four consecutive games and are looking to have a string of five straight in the same season for the first time since Nov. 16-Dec. 14, 2008.
Seven different Tampa Bay players were credited with at least a half sack versus the Bills, with defensive end William Gholston leading the way with 1 1/2. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy added his club-high seventh sack as well.
Tampa Bay's offense ranks 31st with 291.5 YPG and is 30th in scoring just 18.8 points per game, but Rainey has been a jolt to the system. In his past three home games, he has notched five total touchdowns and 335 rushing yards.
The 49ers certainly breathed some life into their playoff chances with last weekend's win over the Seahawks, but may have trouble mustering up the same amount of energy of this contest.
"Every game's a challenge. Every game's a big task," said Harbaugh. "Tampa's playing extremely good football right now. I've been following them the last month, playing good ball. ... The players are making their bodies feel better and coaches have been game planning. We're moving onto the next one."
Teams usually have trouble traveling from coast-to-coast and the 49ers certainly had their issues the last time they went to Tampa. But Tampa's offense struggled last weekend against a team that can bring pressure and the Niners can do much of the same while getting enough from their offense in the process.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 23, Buccaneers 13
12/12 14:50:54 ET