This is my Friday column.
The 49ers seemed dead after they lost to the Seahawks at home Week 7, but the Niners have a pulse.
With seven games left, they are three games out of a wild card spot, and they just beat one of the wild card contenders — the 6-3 Falcons. San Francisco also beat the 7-2 NFC-North-leading Vikings in the season opener.
Those are two impressive wins.
Sunday, the Niners will play the Seahawks again, this time in Seattle where the Seahawks’ record is 2-2. They’re vulnerable this season. The Niners can beat them.
Here are five things to watch for in this game.
1. Blaine Gabbert — is he for real?
Two weeks ago, Gabbert made his first start since Oct. 10, 2013. He didn’t play like a guy who had taken two years off — he played like a veteran who hadn’t missed a start in five years.
“He didn’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to ease into this thing,’” 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said Thursday afternoon. “So, full credit to Blaine for playing at game tempo, and allowing himself and his teammates to be successful because he was playing fast.”
Gabbert got the offense in and out of the huddle efficiently — no delay-of-game penalties. He also threw the ball quickly and avoided pressure — no sacks.
Is Gabbert a one-week wonder, or will he improve? Will he play better than Colin Kaepernick, who converted just one of 11 third downs against the Seahawks Week 7?
Hard for Gabbert to play worse.
2. The offensive line — can it protect Gabbert?
Against the Falcons, Gabbert faced pressure 15 of the 30 times he dropped back to pass. That’s 50 percent, an extraordinarily high rate of pressure.
Gabbert never got sacked. Sometimes he would scramble for first downs. Sometimes he would scramble and throw to a receiver. Sometimes he would throw the ball before a pass rusher hit him. He avoided pressure brilliantly.
How much pressure will he have to avoid Sunday? The Seahawks’ pass rush is better than the Falcons’. Seattle has 23 sacks this season — Atlanta has 10.
It could be a rough afternoon for the 49ers offensive linemen. It’s up to them to perform.
3. The running game — will the 49ers have one?
Starting tailback Carlos Hyde has a stress fracture in his left foot and probably won’t travel to Seattle.
So, running back Shaun Draughn probably will make his second start for the 49ers. Draughn was decent during his first start — he gained 96 yards from scrimmage. Can he match that performance Sunday?
Probably not. The Seahawks’ run defense is allowing just 3.6 yards per carry at home. It may dominate the 49ers’ offensive line and stop Draughn in the backfield. This is a real challenge for the 49ers.
4. NaVorro Bowman — is he really back?
NaVorro Bowman played his best game of the season against the Falcons. He was everywhere — five tackles, four quarterback hurries, two quarterback hits and one sack. He seemed quicker than he’d been since he tore his ACL and MCL in 2014.
Was his quickness an illusion, or is Bowman really back? He didn’t seem back just a few weeks ago when the Niners played the Seahawks. Marshawn Lynch, who’s having a terrible season, ran right down the Niners throats and Bowman couldn’t do anything about it.
Bowman also struggled in pass coverage during that game — he gave up four catches on four targets. Through nine games, he has given up 39 catches on 41 targets.
Will the Seahawks expose Bowman as a one-game wonder?
5. Marshawn Lynch — can the 49ers finally stop him?
Marshawn Lynch has played one good game this season — Week 7 against the Niners. He rushed 27 times for 122 yards and a touchdown.
Take away that game, and Lynch is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. He’s getting old, slowing down and running behind the worst offensive line in the NFL.
So, why did he play so well against the Niners? Maybe it’s because the Niners didn’t practice before that game. Jim Tomsula had his players do three walkthroughs that week. The Niners weren’t prepared.
They should be prepared this time. They’re coming off a bye, so they’ve had two weeks to practice for Lynch and the Seahawks. The Niners should shut him down.
And if they do, they should win.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.