• Geoff Castaneda

Are the 49ers in a Position to Go Deep in the Playoffs?

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Standing at 6-5, and on a three-game win streak, the 49ers are one of the NFC’s most trendy teams. San Francisco weathered a 3-5 start, which included an embarrassing regular season sweep by the Arizona Cardinals, and rebounded in dramatic fashion with a 31-17 trouncing of the Los Angeles Rams in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football. The Niners won on the road against a hapless Jacksonville Jaguars team and positioned themselves firmly in Wild Card contention with a Week 12 win over the Minnesota Vikings. While the players (Deebo Samuel excluded) and coaching staff would never get ahead of themselves with playoff speculation, fans are free to daydream as they wish. So, after some of us called the season a wrap, how far into the playoffs can this 49ers team go?

Health is Wealth

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The injury bug bit the 49ers hard in Week 1. Starting cornerback Jason Verrett was lost for the year in the opening contest. Dre Greenlaw suffered a groin (or was it an abductor?) injury and did not return until last week. Health issues tanked the 49ers’ 2020 season before it had the chance to get started. The Faithful’s injury PTSD was triggered again in Week 12 when Deebo Samuel and Fred Warner left the game prematurely and were unable to return. The 49ers dodged a major bullet after MRIs for both players returned favorable. If the 49ers intend to continue their upward trend, it will take all the luck in the world to ensure they remain healthy.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

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Just a few weeks ago, Kyle Shanahan looked lost. The offense lacked rhythm and identity. In the 49ers’ five losses, they averaged 22.4 rushing attempts per game. In their six wins, they’ve averaged 36.1. The trend is obvious: The 49ers are a better team when they make a concerted effort to run the ball. San Francisco has a solid offensive line headlined by all-world left tackle Trent Williams and underappreciated left guard Laken Tomlinson. Running back Elijah Mitchell has outperformed any expectations for a sixth-round rookie. The 49ers have developed a penchant for playing keep-away on offense and dominating the time of possession. Credit the union of Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling and Jimmy Garoppolo’s efficiency on third down for the 49ers’ ability to sustain lengthy drives and capitalize in the red zone. The 49ers’ offense has kept the defense rested and in turn, compensated for the deficiencies that plagued the unit earlier in the year. The 49ers are built to win in the trenches and wear defenses down. San Francisco’s best chance at postseason success is staying the course.

One Week at a Time

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Former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is legendary for his postgame speeches, including the anthemic, “Who’s got it better than us?” Harbaugh often wrapped up his locker room addresses by reminding the team to “Move on with humble hearts.” That’s the mentality needed to finish the season strong. Yes, San Francisco is hot, but they are not without fault. Jimmy Garoppolo has yet to show the league (or his coach) that he can win a game on his own. The 49ers’ secondary is suspect, and Josh Norman continues to rack up pass interference penalties like they’re a form of cryptocurrency and the defense has lacked a pass rush from everyone not named Nick Bosa. San Francisco occupies the sixth seed in the NFC and is only one game back of the Rams for the fifth seed. However, six NFC teams sit at five wins: Washington, Minnesota, Atlanta, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Carolina. Any of the bunch could overtake the 49ers if they experience a late-season slide. San Francisco is talented enough to compete for a Super Bowl, but they cannot lose sight of their immediate goals.

A True Contender

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The 49ers are two years removed from their last Super Bowl appearance. They have several roster holdovers from their 2019 run and those veterans possess invaluable postseason experience. The 2021 season has been a tale of two teams. San Francisco has looked both like a team in need of a rebuild and like one that can beat the best in the NFC. Hopes and aspirations are nice. Every team starts their season with intentions of making a playoff run. Slowly, the NFL season reveals the contenders and unmasks the pretenders. One thing is certain, any team boasting a dominant rushing attack and the ability to control the line of scrimmage has an opportunity to make noise in January and February.

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