There they stand, the first-place Buccaneers and the first-place 49ers, ready to face off at Candlestick Park.
Can’t be, you say. Believe it.
Both teams are 3-1, with Tampa Bay tied atop the highly competitive NFC South with New Orleans. San Francisco not only is alone in first place in the NFC West, it already has a two-game lead.
And the Niners come off a successful two-game road trip during which they didn’t bother to return to the Bay Area, following a victory at Cincinnati with what quarterback Alex Smith dubbed “a mini-training camp” in Youngstown, Ohio. Then they headed to Philadelphia, rallied from a 23-3 second-half deficit and beat the struggling Eagles.
Rookie coach Jim Harbaugh has instilled a winning attitude in a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002. He wants them to believe in themselves, just not too much quite yet.
“I told them the other day they’re good, and the longer it takes them to figure that out the better off we’ll all be, because when people start thinking they’ve arrived that’s when they stop working and doing the things that got them there,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll keep pretending we have a long way to go, and we do. We don’t have to pretend.”
The Buccaneers, a 2½-point underdog, are attempting a difficult feat. They had to go down to the wire at home against winless Indianapolis on Monday night, resumed practice Wednesday and must fly west in a short week to face a team on the rise.
“Survive and advance. That’s what we’re after,” coach Raheem Morris said. “The fact is you’re 3-1. And you’re very excited about it. Got a short week and we’re going to San Francisco. Let’s get to it.”
This matchup could hinge on turnovers. The 49ers are plus-6 and have only two giveaways. Tampa Bay is even.
The Buccaneers are the better team, yet have a few things working against them this week. Just not enough things. ... BUCCANEERS, 20-17
N.Y. Jets (plus 9½) at New England — It’s bad enough for the Jets that their offense can’t protect Mark Sanchez and they can’t run the ball. Then there are the turnovers and, oh, yes, a bit of a revenge factor for New England. ... BEST BET, PATRIOTS 37-20
Oakland (plus 6) at Houston — Should be a dandy running affair with Darren McFadden, Arian Foster and Ben Tate. ... UPSET SPECIAL, RAIDERS 28-27
Chicago (plus 6) at Detroit, Monday night — Lions are a premier air team, Bears have trouble stopping the pass. Big night for Calvin Johnson. ... LIONS, 27-20
Tennessee (plus 5) at Pittsburgh — Oh, so tempting to go with Titans, who can prove they are for real. Steelers pull out tight one. ... STEELERS, 20-19
Green Bay (minus 5½) at Atlanta — Imagine: Aaron Rodgers is playing even better than he did when Green Bay romped in the playoffs at the Georgia Dome in January. ... PACKERS, 31-23
New Orleans (minus 6) at Carolina — Panthers manage to play everybody close. Saints have big one at Tampa next week. ... SAINTS, 26-21
Philadelphia (minus 2½) at Buffalo — Getting away from home might be the tonic for Eagles, who can’t possibly be this bad ... we think. ... EAGLES, 24-23
Seattle (plus 10) at N.Y. Giants — Giants go for 3-0 vs. NFC West. Even with their injuries, they should get there easily. ... GIANTS, 27-13
San Diego (minus 4) at Denver — Chargers are a scary road favorite. Broncos are just plain scary — not in a fearsome way. ... CHARGERS, 24-21
Cincinnati (plus 2½) at Jacksonville — Rookie QBs matchup only reason to watch this one. Go with Dalton over Gabbert. ... BENGALS, 14-13
Arizona (plus 2½) at Minnesota — Yet another pick for a road win, though we can’t quite say why. ... CARDINALS, 20-17
Kansas City (plus 2½) at Indianapolis — Colts are going to get a win somewhere. Might as well be here. ... COLTS, 17-16
Against spread: 10-5 (overall 36-23-2); straight up 14-2 (overall 44-20).
Best Bet: 1-3 against spread, 2-2 straight up.
Upset Special: 3-1 against spread, 2-2 straight up.