No Place Like Home: Previewing the 49ers’ Last Home Game of the Season
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After 16 weeks of the regular season, the 49ers stand at 8-7 and hold the No. 6 seed in the NFC. Week 17 will see the 49ers play host at Levi’s Stadium for presumably the final time this season. The visiting Texans have long been eliminated from the AFC playoff race. However, Houston assumed the role of playoff spoiler during their Week 16 41-29 win over the San Diego Chargers. The 49ers have yet to secure their ticket to the playoffs, but a loss by the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football means that San Francisco once again controls their own fate. With the 49ers in a must-win situation and uncertainty at the quarterback position, there’s a lot to unpack before the home finale.
Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?
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In an increasingly odd season, 49ers fans have found their next great obsession: the status of Jimmy Garoppolo’s thumb. After missing Monday’s “bonus practice,” head coach Kyle Shanahan revealed the 49ers’ starting quarterback suffered a thumb injury during the Week 16 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Reports surfaced that Shanahan downplayed the extent of Garoppolo’s injury. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport disclosed that Garoppolo sustained a chipped bone and torn UCL ligament in his thumb. Skeptics and conspiracy theorists have gone to the tapes to review the postgame conference and the bottle-opening capabilities of Garoppolo’s throwing hand. Despite the uncertainty, Shanahan has praised the progress of his backup quarterback over the last month. Trey Lance is 0-1 as a starter but there’s reason to believe a few extra weeks of practice have helped prepare the rookie for his next opportunity. Shanahan announced he will evaluate Garoppolo’s health later this week before deciding who will start against the Texans. Expect Sunday’s starting quarterback to be a mystery until just before kickoff.
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On paper, the Texans are a 4-11 team with a rookie quarterback and head coach. Don’t be fooled. The Texans are more than capable of shocking an opponent. Just ask the Chargers, another team with playoff aspirations, who surrendered 41 points in their loss to Houston. The Texans stifled a short-handed Chargers offense, generating three turnovers in the process. Credit to the Texans, who also had their own health-related issues. Despite having 16 players on the COVID-19 list, Houston found a way to prevail. The Texans relied on a career day from running back Rex Burkhead and efficient play from third-round quarterback Davis Mills. The rookie from Stanford played mistake-free football on the way to a 254-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Texans will be eager to dash the 49ers playoff hopes. San Francisco will need to be efficient on both sides of the ball to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Playoffs? You Want to Talk About Playoffs?
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Yes, let’s discuss the playoffs. According to ESPN, the 49ers have a 78 percent chance to make the playoffs. Sounds pretty good right? A win against the Texans would not automatically clinch a playoff spot for the Red & Gold. However, a 49ers’ win, combined with a Saints loss, would lock up a postseason berth. If the Saints manage to beat the Carolina Panthers, San Francisco will need wins in Week 17 and Week 18 to reserve their place in the playoffs. Despite sharing a common 8-7 record, the 49ers hold the tiebreaker over the Philadelphia Eagles, bumping them to the No. 7 seed. Philadelphia travels to the District of Columbia in Week 17 to face a Washington team reeling after a blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles wrap up their regular season at home against the NFC East champions. Don’t forget about the Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, and New Orleans Saints all hovering at 7-8. San Francisco’s approach should be simple: win at all costs.
Next Men Up
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We know about the injury at quarterback, but the 49ers have several other prominent names on the injury report. Azeez Al-Shaair returned to the field last week after missing Week 15’s game with an elbow injury. Al-Shaair appeared to reaggravate the injury during Thursday night’s loss, visibly grimacing and grabbing the affected area after tackling running back D’Onta Foreman. Al-Shaair stayed in the game until a knee injury forced him out for good. He’s likely to miss the final two games of the regular season. Injuries at linebacker have been a yearlong struggle. Dre Greenlaw has missed 13 games and he remains doubtful for Week 17 with a lingering groin injury. Pencil in Darius Flannigan-Fowles and Marcell Harris as the presumptive substitutes for a banged-up linebacker corps.
Add Emmanuel Moseley’s name to the list of players unlikely to appear in the home finale. Shanahan previously alluded to a return against the Rams in Week 18 at the earliest. Ambry Thomas has improved week-to-week. The rookie third-round pick has not been perfect, but the 49ers remain limited in their options.
On a hopeful note, Elijah Mitchell may return after a three-week absence. Jeff Wilson Jr. has been a serviceable replacement, but the 49ers sorely miss Mitchell’s steady production and big-play ability. San Francisco’s running back rotation has consisted exclusively of Wilson and third-down specialist JaMycal Hasty. Trey Sermon also has a chance to return this week. His availability would signal the most complete running back stable since Week 1.
With regards to specialists, no news is good news. Unfortunately, punter Mitch Wishnowsky landed on the 49ers’ COVID-19 list this week. NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco announced that the 49ers worked out free-agent punters Colby Wadman and Jimmy Smith on Tuesday. No word yet as to whether Wishnowsky will clear COVID-protocols in time for Sunday’s game. His absence could spell disruption across the board for special teams due to his roles as the punter, kickoff specialist, and holder.
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