The San Francisco 49ers will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a key late-season matchup. The 49ers have won three in a row while the Bucs have won four of their last five. The game will also feature a reunion of sorts when former 49ers Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson faces his old teammates.
Here are the top 10 headlines to track for Sunday’s matchup.10. 'By Any Means Necessary'
Jim Harbaugh’s 2013 mantra continues to be relevant. The 49ers will need to win on Sunday, however it comes. The Bucs have played improved football since opening the year 0-8. They should not be overlooked. San Francisco is coming off an inspired 19-17 home win over the Seattle Seahawks and they will now be playing a team they’re expected to beat. It’s never that easy. The 49ers are on the road and they’re playing their first true 10 a.m. body clock game. San Francisco had an early kick-off in a Week 8 win over Jacksonville, but the team had an entire week in London to get adjusted. The early East Coast start time is another challenge, but ultimately, the road team needs to win to keep pace in the NFC playoff race.9. Will Iupati Return?
Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati
has not played in three weeks. The 49ers, however, have not skipped a beat on offense. Veteran Adam Snyder
has stepped in at left guard and has been solid in three consecutive wins. Iupati joined practice this week in a limited role and has a “possible” chance of playing this week, according to Harbaugh. The availability of Iupati will be a game-time decision. Interior line play will be important this week against an aggressive Tampa Bay defensive front led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.8. 100-Yard Drought
Only two teams in the NFL have not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season. San Francisco is one of those two. The defense has bottled up opposing rushers this year and will look to continue the trend against a shifty runner, Bobby Rainey. The 5-foot-8, 212-pound running back has rushed for two, 100-yard rushing games in his last four outings. Rainey is the featured back after the Bucs lost Doug Martin and Mike James to season-ending injuries. Rainey’s running style is different than the bruising backs the 49ers have faced in recent weeks (Alfred Morris, Zac Stacy and Marshawn Lynch). 7. T-Brown's Role
One of the more fascinating decisions the 49ers will have to make this season is how to utilize Tarell Brown
when he returns to the field. The seventh-year veteran is a play-maker on defense and is in the last year of his contract. After suffering a rib injury against the New Orleans Saints, Tramaine Brock
has stepped in for Brown and has performed well in the starting lineup. Brock also signed a four-year contract extension last month. As for Brown, defensive coaches have said he’ll need to work his stamina up to get back into the mix on defense. The same treatment was given to Aldon Smith
who missed five games earlier this season. Smith wasn’t handed his starting job back and it appears as though Brown will be in the same situation. For now, Brown’s gameday status will be an intriguing process to monitor. Brock started the year as the team’s No. 4 cornerback and is now the team’s leader with four interceptions as an every-down starter.6. Gameday Inactives
Health and December don’t go together in the National Football League. However, those words are working in conjunction with the 49ers this month. This week at practice, the entire team participated in some form or fashion. Players with recent injuries like Iupati and Brown were able to take part in some portions of workouts. San Francisco’s roster is very healthy in the stretch run and the gameday inactives will be interesting to see. Whoever makes the 46-man gameday roster has earned it in practice.5. 'Crab' SeasonMichael Crabtree
has provided a spark in his two games with the 49ers this season. Crabtree has averaged 13.0 yards per reception in his five seasons and has averaged 18.0 yards per catch in 2013. The fifth-year wideout has been a physical presence in the run and pass game. Although Crabtree has exceeded expectations coming off an Achilles tear, he still wants to do better. The play-making wideout expressed his desire to play better after the win over Seattle. Crabtree will get another chance to show his strides on Sunday.4. Gore Goes for 1,000
Just because the 49ers have become more dynamic on offense in recent weeks doesn’t mean you can forget about the franchise’s rushing king. Frank Gore
ripped off a 51-yard run last week to set up the game-winning field goal. In doing so, Gore showed there’s plenty of big plays left under his belt. At 30, Gore produced his longest run of the season and is now 69 yards shy of his seventh, 1,000-yard season.
3. 'Hawk' Watch
When facing Goldson this week, the 49ers will have to be wise when going over the middle of the field. Players like Vernon Davis
and Anquan Boldin
are fearless when it comes to that. But with that said, the competitive side of Goldson will come out in this game much more than any other week. He’ll want to play well against a team that let him go in free agency. The hard-hitting safety competes every single game and sets the tone for the physical play in Tampa’s defense. Let the competition between friends and former teammates begin. It should be quite entertaining.2. TD Streak
Davis has two milestones to track in this game. With one touchdown catch, Davis will become the first tight end in NFL history to record two seasons with 12-or-more touchdown catches. It will also give him five consecutive games with a touchdown grab. Davis’ chemistry with his quarterback has been solid all season so there’s no reason to doubt that the milestone can’t be accomplished this week.1. 'Kap' vs. Opportunisic 'D'
Watch out Colin Kaepernick
. The Bucs lead the NFL with 21 interceptions and have recorded 13 interceptions in their past five games, including four in last week’s win over the Buffalo Bills. Kaepernick’s decision-making has improved in recent weeks but he’ll have to be careful against a secondary featuring superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis. Kaepernick's lone interception last week was on a deep ball intended for Crabtree. The 49ers quarterback will give his receivers opportunities to compete for the ball, but he'll have to be wise this week. Goldson, Revis and others will be looking for takeaways.