Greg Schiano and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers couldn't have asked for a worse start to the season. The Bucs lost their first eight games of the year and released their former captain, but it seems like they're finally starting to put things together under Schiano and their rookie signal-caller. Can they keep those good times rolling against one of the NFC's elite in Week 15?
The San Francisco 49ers are coming off of perhaps their biggest win of the season, beating the Seattle Seahawks, 19-17, and getting to within two games of the division lead with three games to go, but will they overlook a 4-9 team that's actually one of the hotter teams in the conference?
Here is a closer look at both sides as we get close to wrapping up another NFL regular season.
Meet the Buccaneers
No team in the league came under more scrutiny than the Bucs did early in the year, when reports came out that Schiano was feuding with starting quarterback Josh Freeman and had rigged it so that Freeman wouldn't be named captain for the third year in a row. However, Freeman's poor play on the field eventually got him benched for rookie Mike Glennon and led to his release.
However, the Buccaneers have lost recent tests against Seattle and two games against the Carolina Panthers, so they have not quite proven themselves against the elite. Can they finally close out a signature win and beat San Francisco?
Meet the 49ers
It seemed like all hope for the NFC West was lost, but there's still a glimmer left for Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco to not only win the division for the third straight year, but possibly get a bye week, too. At 9-4, the Niners can win their final three games and possibly overtake the Seahawks if Seattle stumbles down the stretch, but at this point, San Francisco still has to concentrate on securing a wild-card spot. The 8-5 Arizona Cardinals are charging as well, so the 49ers can't afford a loss in Tampa Bay.
San Francisco has recently gotten back star wide receiver Michael Crabtree, and the offense truly missed him. The 49ers are last in the NFL in passing yards, and Colin Kaepernick has been forced to spend most of his time targeting Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis only. No other player was able to step up in Crabtree's absence, but he's already starting to have a positive effect on Kaepernick and the offense.
Couple that with the NFL's third-ranked scoring defense, and you can see why this team went to the Super Bowl last season. The Niners have won three straight games, and they're hoping to make it four in a row on Sunday.
Local Takes: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sander Philipse at Bucs Nation examines whether or not Schiano has done enough to save his job for the 2014 season:
The improvement is real, and that should give us some hope that if Greg Schiano were to stay he probably won't be a disaster going forward. So has he saved his job? Truthfully, I can't answer that question. No one but the Glazers can really answer that question. But if it were up to me, 4-12 would not be enough to retain a coach. Four wins (largely against weak teams) is not good enough.
Local Takes: San Francisco 49ers
David Fucillo at Niners Nation takes a look at Frank Gore's apparent decision to fall during his critical 51-yard run against the Seahawks in Week 14, and how he's one of the smarter running backs in the league:
There has been some discussion about whether or not Pete Carroll should have instructed his defense to let Gore score on one of the ensuing runs after the Kaepernick first down. Advanced NFL Stats said the Seahawks should have attempted to give up the score. It would have given them significantly more time with which to work.
That's all well and good, but they ignore the conclusion of Gore's 51-yard run shortly before. Given that he was wise enough to go down in that situation, it seems almost a no-brainer that he would drop to the ground before the goal line in the later situation. Frank Gore continues to show why he's one of the smartest players out there.
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It would be a bold move to predict a 4-9 team to beat a 9-4 team, but this isn't your typical five-game disparity. Tampa Bay is a good team that's simply had a hard time beating any great teams under Schiano this season, but the Bucs have a talented defense.
Gerald McCoy is arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL this year, and Revis is playing every bit as good as he's always been advertised. If the Bucs have a weakness, though, it will be finding a way to score against the 49ers' defense.
San Francisco is loaded with talent at linebacker. With NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks, it may be the most talented unit in all of football. How can Tampa Bay score enough points to win? The Bucs might not be so lucky.
San Francisco 21, Tampa Bay 16
The 49ers are 5-point favorites, according to Odds Shark. The Bucs are 6-7 against the spread this season, while the Niners are 8-4-1.
Schiano will take his team on the road for the final two games of the year, starting at St. Louis to take on the Rams next Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
The 49ers head back home to face the Atlanta Falcons on Monday, Dec. 23 at 8:40 p.m. ET.