1. What is the "next step" for Colin Kaepernick, or has he already taken it?
I think the next step for Colin Kaepernick is finding consistency. He can make virtually any throw, and of course he has other-worldly athleticism, but a bit more consistency would allow him to get closer to whatever his ceiling might be. We see stretches where Kap is unstoppable, as we saw early against the Cowboys, in the second half of Super Bowl 47, stretches of the Rams game this past Monday, and numerous other instances. But that can be followed by stretches where his passes are a little too high or a little too behind too many times.
All that being said, I think we see him making progress. For example, Monday was one of his better games in recent memory in terms of stepping up in the pocket when pressure comes, rather than bailing out to his left or right and finding himself throwing on the run. Little things like that are what will help him take his game to the next level.
2. The 49ers are banged up. Which injury/injuries concern you most?
Patrick Willis is the one most opposing fans would look to, but I'd say the combination of Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis is a little more concerning for me right now. The 49ers offensive line scuffled to start the season, and injuries are part of that. Anthony Davis has missed much of the season, first with a hamstring issue, and then an MCL issue. Iupati was mostly healthy to start the year, but struggled out of the gates as he was finishing his recovery from a broken leg last January. He suffered a concussion on Monday, and it remains to be seen if he will play. Going into this game without 2/5 of the offensive line is not exactly idea, particularly for a game plan built around strong OL play.
3. If the 49ers' offensive and defensive lines were playing against each other in a game, who would win?
Right now, I'd say the defensive line. This is due in part to that unit playing some great football lately, but also due to injuries and some inconsistent OL play this season.
On base downs, the 49ers roll out Justin Smith, Ian Williams and Ray McDonald. The 49ers do a great job on base downs in terms of slowing the run and setting up longer 2nd and 3rd downs.
On passing downs, they are using Smith and McDonald at the defensive tackle positions, and Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks at the defensive end positions. This past week the 49ers did a great job getting to Austin Davis, but given how quickly Peyton Manning has been able to get the ball away, it will be a challenge. The line has improved its pass rush performance, but they have to continue progressing this week.
4. Is Frank Gore human?
He's part human, part something else entirely. During college he had ACL surgery on both knees. After his rookie year with the 49ers, he had surgery on both shoulders. He fractured his hip in 2010. We're talking about a guy who has dealt with more significant injuries than a lot of NFL players. And yet he keeps on trucking along.
The 49ers have used a second or fourth round pick on a running back each of the last four years. Carlos Hyde is the latest to challenge Gore, and there is a good chance he takes over the starting role next year. Frank Gore is a free agent after this season, and at some point the 49ers will need to figure out who their next running back will be. And yet, Gore is back with another solid start to the year. I would be surprised if Gore was on the roster next year, but at this point I'm not really sure anybody should count that out.
5. What is your prediction for this game, and (bonus) how do you see the NFC West shaking out?
The homer in me sees a potential stunning upset, but the realist in me finds it hard to see the 49ers winning this game. The injuries on the offensive line and throughout the defense make it hard to see the 49ers pulling this off. Of course, this is the kind of "us against the world" mentality that Jim Harbaugh loves.
The homer in me would go with a a surprisingly huge defensive performance, inspired play from the offense, and a 24-23 49ers victory on a late field goal. The realist sees the 49ers competitive, but missing too many weapons, losing 30-20. I'll take the former, please!
Bonus: As for the the division over the rest of the season, I still think it comes down to the 49ers and Seahawks. The Cardinals are winning games, but I just don't see them holding on. They obviously have a win over the 49ers, but this San Francisco team could potentially be heading into the second half of the season with a defense getting set to welcome back Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Glenn Dorsey, Tramaine Brock, and Jimmie Ward. If they can hang around the next few weeks, they would be in excellent position to make a run at the division. I'll go with the 49ers claiming the division via tiebreaker with an 11-5 record, the Seahawks in second at 11-5, the Cardinals in third at 10-6, and the Rams bringing up the rear.
Thanks again to Fooch for taking the time! This should be a great game!