After 14 regular-season games, the 49ers have shown stretches of brilliance, moments of weakness and everything in between.
But over the next two weeks, we’ll learn exactly who the 49ers are and whether another deep playoff run is in the cards.
The 49ers hit the road for consecutive Sunday night showdowns against the New England Patriots — fresh off their 42-14 thrashing of the Houston Texans on Monday — and the Seattle Seahawks before closing out the season at home with the hapless Arizona Cardinals, a game a Pop Warner team could win.
Even coach Jim Harbaugh acknowledged the magnitude of the next two games Monday, saying “no doubt they’re big games,” which for the dry and reserved Harbaugh is the equivalent of jumping in the air and shouting, “Yippee!”
Forget the blowouts of the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets and the setbacks to the St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings. None of it matters during the next two games against playoff-caliber teams in hostile environments. They will provide a true barometer of what’s to come.
The Patriots have reeled off seven straight victories this season, and Tom Brady and Co. have won 20 consecutive December home games. The Seahawks are 6-0 at home this season and their fan base rivals Lindsay Lohan on the crazy scale.
So on paper, the odds aren’t in the 49ers’ favor.
However, these games are the reason Harbaugh went with rocket-armed Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith at quarterback.
Of late, Kaepernick has been criticized for his “Smith-like” stats and inability to lead the offense to a deluge of touchdowns.
But that’s missing the point.
If Kaepernick is doing what Smith was doing through the air, great. That means he’s being efficient and not turning the ball over. What Kaepernick brings to the table that Smith doesn’t is his ability to run with the ball and the room for growth.
Smith is in his eighth season while Kaepernick is still in his second, and his first as a starter. So if the second-year player is already matching the veteran, it’s a no-brainer to take the guy with upside over the guy who has flat-lined.
And it’s not like red-zone inconsistency is unique to Kaepernick, as the 49ers were plagued by similar issues throughout 2011 under Smith when kicker David Akers set the NFL record for field goals.
The challenge facing Kaepernick these next two weeks is whether he can continue to be efficient and not turn the ball over under the most extreme circumstances the NFL regular season has to offer. Can he rise to the occasion with everything on the line?
There are a million scenarios for Kaepernick and the 49ers and their playoff seeding, ranging from a first-round bye to a road wild-card game.
Will Super Bowl visions soon dance in the 49ers’ heads? We’ll find out in two weeks.
Dylan Kruse is the sports editor of The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @dkruse16.