With more than one-third of the NFL season in the rear-view mirror, teams across the league have begun to show their true colors.
For the 49ers, however, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster. The opener was an exhilarating thrill ride, but two nauseating losses quickly followed. Since then, things in 49ersland have smoothed out as San Francisco has reeled off three straight victories.
But a question still remains: Can the 2013 49ers go one step further than last year’s bunch, who lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl?
The 49ers’ upcoming six-week stretch should give us a pretty good idea of the answer.
The 49ers play four of their next five games away from Candlestick Park, with a bye week sandwiched in between. Road games against the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars (in London), New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins and a home game against the Carolina Panthers comprise the upcoming slate.
If you take out the Saints, the other four teams have a combined record of 6-16. It’s hardly a lineup of NFL heavyweights, but road games in the NFL are never an easy task and a stretch of four in five games will test any team.
Part of the reason this stretch is so vital is the 49ers need to make up ground on the Seattle Seahawks and Saints in the race for best record in the NFC.
We’ve seen how San Francisco playing in Seattle has gone the past two years, and it’s not pretty. The way the Saints are playing this year, a playoff trip to the Big Easy would be anything but easy. If the 49ers can avoid either scenario, it would go a long way in determining the likelihood of a return trip to the Super Bowl.
At this point, the 49ers are trending in the right direction. After scoring just 10 points combined in the team’s two losses, the Niners have three straight games of 32 points or more. Running back Frank Gore’s slow start to 2013 has disappeared the way Miley Cyrus’ modesty has, as he is averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game over his past four.
On defense, the Niners are creating turnovers in bunches and limiting opponents’ scoring chances. After allowing an average of 28 points in their first three games, the 49ers have slashed that to a little more than 11 points per game over the past three.
What is most encouraging for the 49ers is they’ve often been forced to play shorthanded this season. Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith have all missed time, not to mention the likes of cornerback Chris Culliver and defensive tackle Ian Williams, who are out for the season.
With reinforcements such as receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree scheduled to return down the road, there is reason to think the 49ers are in line for another postseason run.
This upcoming part of the schedule should go a long way in telling us exactly how far that run could go.
Dylan Kruse is the sports editor of The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @dylan_kruse.