Although the weather normally remains stable when crossing the famous Bay Bridge in Northern California, the locale is now featuring an outlook of severe changes when they journey from one end of the four-and-a-half mile long, silver-metallic behemoth to the other.
While those issues don’t involve temperature changes or global warming, the up-and-down outlook of winter throughout the Bay Area manifests from the direction of its two football franchises.
At the end of the thirteenth weekend in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders appear to be racing in different directions like the traffic on the Bay Bridge.
After a disappointing loss on Thanksgiving night, Alex Smith and his team rebounded to shut out division rivals, the St. Louis Rams, and secure their first division title in nine years. On the opposite end of the Bay though, the Raiders were embarrassed by the lowly Miami Dolphins with a 34-14 thrashing, and must now share first place with the Denver Broncos for the AFC West.
The fact that Raiders and 49ers have a forecast for January is amazing to everyone outside of both squads’ inner circle. When they entered the 2011 season, everyone had lukewarm expectations, at best, for how their year would play out. Both brought in new head coaches at the start of the off-season, but where strapped for preparation time due to the lockout. With little-to-no opportunity to analyze, alter, and mold their teams with their visions; a .500 season would have been viewed as a success.
That forecast didn’t sit right for both head coaches.
Both squads busted out of the gate at the start of the season on a roll. The 49ers took five of their first six and the Raiders were close behind them with four wins in that same span. They were losing the label of pretenders and flirting with the possibility of entering NFL’s upper-echelon as post-season contenders.
San Francisco continued to ascend up the high road to obtaining that new moniker and pushed on with their top-notch play. They would tack on four more wins after their 5-1 start, but rejuvenated a bit of doubt of not being worthy as playoff participants with their turkey day loss to the Ravens, then erased that skepticism after penciling their name in for January football.
The following weeks will only get tougher for the Raiders as they try to remain a contender. After they head to Lambeau, they face the Lions (7-5) who are also desperately seeking a win to stay in playoff contention themselves. Then their in-conference rivals, Kansas City (5-7) and San Diego (4-7), will hope to play spoiler to Oakland or may even be fighting for a playoff spot by week sixteen and seventeen.
Although foretelling their chances on earning a playoff spot appear too foggy and bleak, the Raiders could be a difficult opponent to take down if they own a berth for January. Their pass defense is solid enough to contend against any high-powered passing offense and their elite running game can wear out anyone with their superb combination of speed and power. All of these attributes will need to fire on all phases as they try to capture the AFC West crown and could prove to be important once the post season kicks off.
Needless to say, the hardest and most improbable task for Oakland would be the chance to play in January rather than trying to win in January.
The 49ers, on the other hand, are looking to maintain their one-game lead as the NFC’s second seed as they head to Arizona to face the inferior Cardinals (5-7). Their biggest roadblock to that goal will follow the week after, as they host the Steelers (9-3) on Monday Night Football. They then finish up the year against two more NFC West cellar-dwellers, Seattle (5-7) and St. Louis (2-10).
Settling for the excitement of being a post season participant could cloud the 49ers on their path to a brighter day. A second seed would give the franchise not only a bye for the first round, but also allow them to escape an early meeting with the juggernaut Packers. Coming in number two in the NFC means any other opponent but Green Bay would have to step into San Francisco after a fierce, wild-card round battle. This would guarantee that they wouldn’t face the Aaron Rodgers-led group until the NFC championship game rather than a possible second round meeting in Green Bay. It would also allow the 49ers to possibly only be on the road for the championship game rather than both the championship and second round game.
Regardless, both teams still have tons of work before them to prophesy what January will look like. Although one may have a better prognosis before them than the other, even the weather can sometimes never be consistent with what is expected.
So prepare for an erratic forecast for Northern California football, because the outlook contrasts greatly when crossing the Bay Bridge.