By Chris Ruddick, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) – The San Francisco 49ers have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments this season. However, they’ll be going for a third straight win and will try to stay in the playoff hunt when they face a surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers team Sunday at Candlestick Park.
A preseason darling, the 49ers stumbled out of the gates, losing their first five games for the first time in franchise history. However, wins in three of their last four contests has San Francisco just two games back in the underwhelming NFC West.
The good feelings in San Francisco at the moment can be traced back to one person, and that is new starting quarterback Troy Smith, who was signed just six days before the 49ers’ season opener.
After the former Heisman Trophy winner sparked a come-from-behind win in London against the Denver Broncos on Halloween, Smith had a career day in his second straight start last Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, as he threw for 356 yards in San Francisco’s 23-20 overtime win.
More importantly, Smith has yet to turn the ball over and will get another start this week, despite the fact that former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith has been cleared to play.
“He’s had a big part in us winning these last two games, and you want to keep that going and see how much is there,” said Niners head coach Mike Singletary of Troy Smith. “Our team understands that I’m going to go with the guy that is winning right now, the guy that has the hot hand and has made the difference in the past two weeks.”
As good as Troy Smith has been, it is still running back Frank Gore who drives the 49ers’ offense. Gore has averaged 114.0 rushing yards in San Francisco’s last four games, three of which have been wins.
“It is no secret that he wants to run power with Frank Gore and come downhill and run powerful plays down right at you and make you tackle,” Tampa head coach Raheem Morris said of his counterpart Singletary.
While the 49ers have for the most part disappointed, there has not been much not to like about this year’s Buccaneers. Following an awful three-win campaign in 2009, Tampa Bay has been one of the real feel-good stories in the NFL this season, as it has already doubled its win total from a year ago.
A favorable schedule has also played a part in the Bucs’ improvement, as all six of their wins have come against opponents currently at .500 or below. Tampa has also had a knack at winning on the road, where they are 3-1 this season.
Tampa Bay hasn’t won four road games in a season since going 5-3 in 2005.
The biggest difference in Tampa, though, has been the progression of second- year pro Josh Freeman, who has Buccaneers fans thinking they can reach the postseason for the first time since 2007. The young quarterback spearheaded an offensive outburst in last week’s 31-16 win over Carolina that saw the Bucs rack up 21 first downs and 421 total yards of offense.
“When we took over this program (following the 2008 season), me and (general manager) Mark Dominik sat down together and said we know it’s a lot easier to win with a quarterback,” Morris said of the decision to draft Freeman.
With last week’s triumph, the Bucs became the first team since the 2002 Dallas Cowboys to start seven rookies and win. As the league’s youngest team, the Bucs 53-man roster contains 24 players with less than two years of NFL experience and nine players in their third year. The roster averages 25 years and 288 days.
Despite not getting a ton of respect league-wide, Tampa Bay is right in the thick of the NFC South at 6-3 and is tied for second place with the New Orleans Saints, one game back of the division-leading Atlanta Falcons.
“We’re not really worried about what people are saying,” Freeman said. “We just have to go out and try to find a way to execute.”
There always seems to be a team that comes from nowhere in the second half to make the playoffs. I think the San Francisco 49ers could be that team this year. Thanks to Troy Smith, the offense seems to be firing on all cylinders at the moment. Given the state of the NFC West, why can’t the 49ers win that division? As good of a story as Freeman and the Bucs seem to be, they have struggled against good teams and traditionally have had problems in San Francisco. And despite their 3-6 mark, the 49ers are showing signs that they are a good team. The Bucs have had trouble against the run all season, and I have a feeling that trend will continue this week. I think Tampa is coming on, but I have yet to be impressed by them this season. Keep in mind that the Bucs are just one of four teams with a winning record but a negative point differential this season. They’ve scored 188 points while giving up 206. This really isn’t as big of an upset as it might seem.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: San Francisco 27, Tampa Bay 13