Lowell Cohn: Jim Harbaugh needs to prove he can beat an elite team

  • San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, watches as quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) warms up before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in San Francisco, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

NEW ORLEANS — Forget the Seahawks. Just forget them.


A few weeks ago, impressed with 49ers' greatness, I wrote this season would come down to the Dec. 8 game between Seattle and San Francisco at Candlestick Park. I wrote the entire season for both teams pointed toward that game. The victor would take the NFC West and the loser would be relegated to the hard world of the wild card, starting with a road game.

Well, the Seattle ship has sailed.

The 49ers will not win the NFC West. They will not win enough games to pass the Seahawks, and the Seahawks will not lose enough games for the Niners to make a meaningful challenge. I'm saying the Dec. 8 game won't be a marquee moment. It will be a footnote.

It's time to recalibrate the entire season. The 49ers currently are in the sixth and final wild-card position. That could improve. That could get worse. And that means today's game in New Orleans against the resurgent Saints is San Francisco's most important game of the season. It assumes the status the Seattle game had and no longer has. Today's game is huge.

I believe the Saints will defeat the 49ers. But I don't have a telescope to the future and I could be wrong. Jim Harbaugh's 49ers have surprised me — and you — before. They are resilient.

And now I want to praise Harbaugh. He does not sweat a big game like today's, a season-defining game — because that's what today's game is, season defining. He sees today's game as an opportunity, as a chance and, because he is a competitor to the max, he loves a season-defining game.

Question: What will this game define?

Let's start with Harbaugh himself. Let's state a truism. This game is on his shoulders. Looked at a certain way, this game defines his quality as a coach, determines if he's really elite, or if he merely is very good and received a ton of praise way too early in his career.

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