49ers third-quarter checkpoint

The third quarter of the San Francisco 49ers' regular season is complete. Here are looks at the first and second quarters. Now let’s look at some key developments as the defending NFC champions sit at 8-4:

Story of the quarter: Beating the bad. Losing to the good. The third quarter has been a microcosm of the 49ers’ season. They started the quarter losing to top teams, Carolina and New Orleans, by a total of four points. The 49ers then blew away losing teams, Washington and St. Louis. The 49ers are 6-0 against teams with losing records and 2-4 against teams with winning records. When they win, the 49ers do their job. They have seven double-digit wins, which is tied for the league high with Denver.

Offensive MVP of the quarter: Kicker Phil Dawson. Anytime the kicker is an MVP, it means it is a team that needs to finish some drives. That is certainly the case for the 49ers, whose offense got into a funk in the losses to the Panthers and Saints. But Dawson has made sure the 49ers have scored. He has made 16 straight field goals and he made 10 in the past four games. Dawson was signed in the offseason because the 49ers wanted more consistency than they got form David Akers. It’s been a move that’s worked beautifully.

Defensive player of the quarter: Linebacker Ahmad Brooks. The San Francisco defense has been brilliant in the quarter. It played winning football even in the two losses. We could go a lot of ways here, but Brooks gets the nod. He was all over the field against New Orleans (more about that later) and Washington. Brooks is a solid complementary piece on a unit of stars. But in this quarter he stood out.

Rookie of the quarter: Safety Eric Reid. The first-round draft pick has been a steady force all season. The thing that sticks out about him is he is polished and professional. He’s looked like a five-year pro since Week 1. He was well worth moving up from No. 31 to No. 18 in the draft. He’s been an upgrade over Dashon Goldson, who went to Tampa Bay in free agency.

Disappointment of the quarter: Controversial call at New Orleans. The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go, but Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Drew Brees' neck. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than his neck. The 15-yard penalty gave the Saints new life, and New Orleans finished the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go. The Saints won it with another field goal as time expired. The 49ers still feel like they should have won the game and be 9-3. It won’t change, but the play still hovers in Santa Clara, Calif. I think it has fueled the team and it could end up being a positive.

Biggest unanswered question of the quarter: Offensive health. The 49ers' receivers are now finally healthy. Michael Crabtree made his season debut in Week 13 and the offense instantly improved. However, the 49ers’ offense is not out of the woods. It seems like standout left tackle Joe Staley might be out for a few games with a knee sprain. Right guard Alex Boone will play left tackle and youngster Joe Looney will start for the first time. The 49ers are already playing without starting guard Mike Iupati. He may miss another week with a knee sprain. This offense has never been at full strength this season and it looks like it still may be a while.

Fearless prediction for the fourth quarter: The 49ers will make the playoffs. The 49ers are currently on pace to be the No. 6 seed in the NFC. If I had to guess, I’d say the 49ers will finish 11-5. That’s a heck of a season. But the truth is, if the 49ers want to get back to the Super Bowl, they will have to win three straight weeks on the road in January.