Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 4, beginning with one purported contender's Achilles' heel and continuing with 10 more things to watch below.
Randy Cross still watches the San Francisco 49ers closely between his broadcasting assignments because, after all, the three Super Bowl championships he won as a member of the offensive line irrevocably tie him to the franchise and his former teammates. Cross says he is more dispassionate now. He was close to former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., but as DeBartolo's extraordinary time at the helm recedes further into memory, so does Cross' emotional bond to the 49ers.
"What disappoints most former players of any team that has been that successful is that teams like that close and finish," Cross said by phone this week. "Those are the things you are always proudest of. You rubbed it in and finished somebody off. That's what they're not doing. That thing against Chicago (the Bears scored 21 fourth-quarter points to come from behind in Week 2) was hard to watch. The last three or four years of success, that's not the way they worked. They put the sleeper hold on people."
The statistical fault lines are well-documented and plentiful:
» The 49ers have been penalized 36 times, more than any other team through Week 3. That generally indicates a lack of discipline.
» Their offensive identity seems to be in transition as they move away from the run. San Francisco has gone to the ground on 44.8 percent of plays this season (10th in the NFL), compared to 52.5 percent last season (most in the NFL).
» With Aldon Smith suspended, their pass rush has been lacking; the team has just four sacks so far.
» They have been outscored 52-3 in the second half of games, the worst margin in the NFL.
All of the above points to an inexplicable team-wide meltdown. But this week, with the Philadelphia Eagles in town, the most worrisome statistic is this: The 49ers are the only NFL team that has not scored in the fourth quarter in 2014. The Eagles, carving out an early Kardiac Kids look, have scored more points (40) in the fourth quarter than any other team in the league, and that has helped them notch three straight victories in which they trailed by at least 10 points.
Schein: Glaring team weaknesses
"If you're not finishing, that's not the best team to have on your schedule," Cross said. "If (the Niners are) ahead by 14 points in the fourth quarter and they let up an iota, they'll lose by 10. Those guys (the Eagles) play 60 minutes."
A troublesome start was not entirely unexpected for the 49ers following a tumultuous offseason that was replete with rumors of Harbaugh's imminent departure, arrests, injuries and suspensions. But the manner in which San Francisco has lost has been startling for a team that has been to three straight NFC title games and has one of the best rosters in the league. Why the profusion of penalties? Why does Colin Kaepernick look so scattered late in games (his passer rating in the first quarter is 144.1; in the fourth, it is 48.4)? Where is their killer instinct?
Cross doesn't have an answer -- he said he could save Harbaugh a lot of agita if he did. But he wonders if everything the team has gone through -- from the key losses on defense to the enormous amount of energy the entire franchise put into opening a new stadium -- might have sapped some of its sharpness and focus on the field. Harbaugh himself, in the moments after last Sunday's loss to the Arizona Cardinals, summed up the confusion best when he was asked if he understood what was going on with his team.
"No, I don't," he replied. "We've just got to play better."
"They're not a finished product, in my mind," Cross said. "I would make the analogy to the 2012 Falcons compared to the 2013 Falcons. You start a season, you think you're about there, and you forget the process that got you to great things at the end of the season. What you do the year before doesn't count. There is no carryover.
"When you're missing a body or two, that's your margin of error. If you were so talented you could beat people with six or eight penalties, you better be getting four or five instead of going in the other direction. If you're a team that's talented and suddenly you're not closing, you don't have that finishing killer instinct, that's not something you flip a switch. That involves your quarterback, your pass rush, your lines."
Of course, it's far too early to contemplate a lost season. The 49ers were 1-2 at this point in 2013 and still went on to their third straight NFC Championship Game appearance. After the Eagles, they play the Kansas City Chiefsand St. Louis Rams, both of whom they will almost certainly be favored to beat, before facing the Denver Broncos and then having a bye.
But Harbaugh's future is uncertain -- he is not under contract beyond next season, and his name seems to be mentioned as often in connection with the University of Michigan right now as it is with the 49ers -- and the convoluted deal given to Kaepernick falls well short of a long-term commitment to him. Thus, the ability of the 49ers to find the tough-mindedness and discipline that drove them to previous heights would seem to carry outsize importance. And with a rising team like the Eagles to compare the 49ers to, the championship window that has been open for three years in San Francisco suddenly seems in danger of narrowing dramatically.
"If they're looking at it the right way, it's been three years of unfinished business," Cross said. "It's not three years of accomplishment. It's, What do you want to be? The Patriots? Or the old Niners? Or do you want to be the old Eagles? You want to go to the playoffs every year and get to the NFC Championship Game? We collect those big platinum trophies in San Francisco, not those funny George Halas things."
1) Might the Bears' banged-up safeties provide a panacea for the struggling Packers offense? Entering Week 4, Green Bay ranked 28th in total offense, 27th in scoring and 21st in passing. Of 102 pass attempts, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has completed just two that have gone for 25 yards or more, which is tied for 31st in the NFL. Rodgers is averaging 232.3 yards per game -- that's almost 50 fewer than he did last season, and is easily below his average as a starter entering this season. Eddie Lacy (3.1 yards per carry) could find holes against a Bears run defense that is allowing 144.7 yards per game.
2) A tough matchup for the Cowboys' D. Dallas cornerback Morris Claibornestormed out of the team facility on Tuesday after being demoted, but the league's 21st-ranked defense still needs him, because despite their 1-2 record, the New Orleans Saints still have one of the NFL's best offenses. They've scored on 46.4 percent of their drives (13 of 28), which is the best mark in the NFL, and have converted on 24 of 39 third downs, which is also tops. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has struggled away from the Superdome, posting 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his past eight road games, but historically, he has had no trouble with the Cowboys. Since joining the Saints, Brees has recorded 14 touchdowns against just two interceptions and an average of 374.4 passing yards vs. Dallas.
3) The Jets' quarterback watch is on.This is not the best week for New York to try getting Geno Smith right, as the Lions boast the top-ranked overall defense and the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL, and Smith has five giveaways this season, most in the league entering Week 4. Look for the Jets to run more on first down, because Smith is the NFL's worst quarterback on first down, compiling a passer rating of 26.8 with no touchdowns and four interceptions.
4) The Dolphins' quarterback watch is on, too. Coach Joe Philbin declined to name Ryan Tannehill his starter in the early part of the week for Sunday's matchup against Oakland in London. Whether the lack of a public commitment was rooted in something real or simply a motivational tactic -- the quarterback wound up announcing himself that he'd start -- concern for Tannehill is obvious. He is averaging just 5.03 yards per pass attempt, lowest in the NFL, is worst in the league at third-down completions (43.8 percent) and has the second fewest completions (four) on passes of at least 20 yards. The Raiders, though, are allowing a completion percentage of 71.8.
5) It's all Teddy Bridgewater, all the time for the Vikings. The only direction for Minnesota to go in, at this point, is up. The team will face an Atlanta defense that, despite last week's smothering of Tampa Bay, is still ranked 20th in points allowed. That said, the Vikings -- who have been without Adrian Peterson the past two weeks -- rank 28th in scoring and 31st in passing, and now will have to keep up with the league's top scoring offense. Bridgewater's poise and decision-making have been lauded, and the rookie provided some spark when he replaced Matt Cassel last week, completing 12 of 20 passes for 150 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, and rushing six times for 27 yards.
6) Behold the rarity of a Patriots team whose defense is carrying a sagging offense. New England's defense is ranked third overall, while its offense is ranked 26th. Tom Brady's completion percentage is under 60 right now, and he's completed just one of 17 passes of at least 20 yards in the air, which is the worst mark in the league among quarterbacks with at least 10 such attempts. This might not be the week for him to attempt too many deep passes, either. The Patriots' offensive line is in transition, and it will be tested: The Chiefs have nine sacks, tied for fourth in the league.
7) Can Blake Bortles save the Jaguars' 31st-ranked offense? For that matter, can the Jaguars keep him in one piece? Bortles' predecessor, Chad Henne, was sacked 16 times, five more than any other quarterback, but Bortles is big and can move enough to extend a play. Last week, he completed 11 of 17 passes that traveled less than 15 air yards. Still, Bortles will need plenty of help. Since taking a 17-0 halftime lead in the season opener, the Jaguars have been outscored 119-27.
8) Can Mike Glennon -- or anything else -- save the Bucs?Glennon might be slated to start in place of veteran Josh McCown, who is hurt and unlikely to face the Steelers on Sunday, but the onus falls on Tampa Bay's defense, which has yielded a league-worst passer rating of 117.2 to opposing quarterbacks. Especially bad news against the strong-armed Ben Roethlisberger: The Bucs have also allowed a league-high 76.0 percent of passes thrown at least 15 yards in the air to be completed.
9) Will the AFC North continue to be this season's powerhouse division? AFC North teams have won 66.6 percent of their games, and all four losses suffered by said teams were to other squads in the division (the Bengals are 3-0). That's even better than the NFC West, whose winning percentage is .583, tied with the NFC East.
10) Will the penalty flags keep flying? The average for the first three weeks is 17 penalties called per game, an increase over 2013 of a little more than two per game. But calls on the points of emphasis have skyrocketed. Illegal contact calls have quadrupled to 40 through three weeks, defensive holding has more than doubled to 79 calls, offensive pass interference calls have doubled and defensive illegal use of hands calls are up two and a half times over last season.