It’s been quite a journey for the San Francisco 49ers (11-4), who, after enduring a weekly struggle for most of the year, now have everything going for them, carrying the league’s best win streak and are in a surprising position to pick up a bye week heading into the playoffs.
It’s been quite the turnaround, as the stars finally appear to be aligning.
In their Week 17 finale, the smoking-hot 49ers will travel to Glendale to take on the rival Arizona Cardinals, whom they smashed 32-20 in Week 6.
Since San Francisco is already a lock for the tournament, this one is all about the playoff implications—and they’ll be sweeping the league this week. The Niners will be fighting for seeding, while hoping they catch a couple lucky bounces with other NFC matchups around the league.
Here is everything you need to know about this week’s matchup, including potential playoff scenarios and where this team stands to improve.
|NFC West Standings|
|San Francisco 49ers||11||4||0||.733|
|St. Louis Rams||7||8||0||.467|
What a setup to Week 17.
Through 16 weeks of play, the NFC West is the only division in football with three teams with double-digit wins. And there are only two other divisions that have two teams with double-digit wins (NFC South and AFC West).
So there’s really no argument anymore—this is the single-best division in football.
Now, it's coming down to a tight race, and there are several scenarios that can play out here. Fortunately for Harbaugh and the 49ers, they are in the tournament regardless, and now, almost every seed is attainable. You can decide for yourself what you feel is most likely to happen.
But here is a rundown from best to worst…
Scenario 2: If the 49ers win at Arizona and the Seahawks lose, they will get the No. 2 seed.
Scenario 3: If the 49ers win at Arizona or they lose at Arizona (plus a New Orleans Saints loss), they will get the No. 5 seed.
Scenario 4: If the 49ers lose at Arizona (plus a Saints win), they will get the No. 6 seed.
Ideally, the 49ers snag home-field advantage for the playoffs, at least to some capacity for a third year in a row. But, on top of winning its own game, San Francisco will be counting on the Seahawks to lose at home for a second week in a row (unlikely), this time to the St. Louis Rams.
They’ll also need the Panthers to lose a road game to the Atlanta Falcons. Weirder things have happened, but this is banking on a lot.
Here is where things begin to get a little tricky, so we’re reaching out to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee for confirmation. If the 49ers do not manage to secure a first-round bye, picking up a No. 1 or 2 seed, they’ll have a road game in the first week and an extra game overall.
The following are all of the possible playoff scenarios if San Francisco has to play in the Wild Card Round:
If the 49ers get the No. 5 seed, they will visit _______ if this happens:
*Dallas. If the Bears beat the Packers and the Cowboys beat the Eagles.
*Green Bay. If the Packers beat the Bears.
If the 49ers get the No. 6 seed, they will visit _______ if this happens:
*Philadelphia. If the Eagles beat the Cowboys.
*Chicago. If the Bears beat the Packers and the Cowboys beat the Eagles.
*Dallas. If the Packers beat the Bears and the Cowboys beats the Eagles.
|49ers Injury Report|
|Ian Williams||DT||Ankle||Out for Season|
|Bruce Miller||FB||Scapula||Out for Season|
|Mario Manningham||WR||Knee, Illness||Unknown|
This is the lightest the injury report has been all year.
The only players who didn’t practice at one point last week were defensive tackle Justin Smith and center Jonathan Goodwin, both of whom had veteran days off. The only player to miss sessions for a legitimate reason was wide receiver Mario Manningham, who is working through something, per Harbaugh.
Manningham expects to be back in the lineup sooner rather than later.
Not to mention, it hasn’t made much a difference anyhow, since the 49ers have not effectively deployed a third wide receiver. Since wideout Michael Crabtree has returned, Manningham has not been involved in the offense. He was replaced this past week by a rotation of receivers and nobody noticed.
Tight end Vance McDonald, receiver Quinton Patton and left guard Mike Iupati came off the injury list this past week, reentering the lineup for the first time in weeks.
This was a boost for the offense, mostly from a depth perspective. Iupati was able to reignite the run game, while McDonald and Patton were able to draw bodies away from coverage when they were on the field running routes. And McDonald, the No. 2 tight end, is also a phenomenal blocker.
There were also players listed with injury that suited up and performed well, via the team's official injury report.
Frank Gore (ankle, knee), Tarell Brown (ribs), NaVorro Bowman (wrist) and Michael Crabtree (ankle, wrist) headline that particular list, all of who started and played lights out versus the Atlanta Falcons. They suffered a few bumps here and there but nothing too out of the ordinary.
As for 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, well, he was poked in the eye in last week’s game, and it appeared to have impaired him for the duration of the game.
He did finish but looked a little out of character. Pending unforeseen circumstances, Davis will be ready to go this week in the season finale versus the Arizona Cardinals, whom he torched for 180 yards and two touchdowns in Week 6.
What Must Improve
When it comes to spreading the ball around on offense, the 49ers have struggled mightily this year, but they’re getting there. Since Michael Crabtree plugged back into the starting lineup, that area of San Francisco’s unit has improved. Targets and catches for everyone have increased for everyone.
Overall, they’re fielding a better product on game day.
Nevertheless, this remains an area of improvement. Can the 49ers get the ball to all of their running backs and a third wide receiver?
With his spurts, it would appear that San Francisco could benefit from structuring some plays around tailback Kendall Hunter. He has not had near the touches he had in his rookie year, and he is still making the most of it. You have to like the energy he gives off when he touches the football.
There is a ton of explosion from him, but he has that veteran polish and toughness the 49ers don’t quite have yet with LaMichael James.
Hunter is a beast of a runner, a reliable receiver and a valuable after-the-catch option. If offensive coordinator Greg Roman could get him involved in the game plan a little more, the Niners could generate a few more big plays.
Not just because Hunter is explosive, but the threat he has underneath will make defenses hesitate when jolting downfield with the Niners’ receiving corps.
He can hurt teams underneath and make them respect every inch of the field, which places strain on a unit over the duration of the game and ultimately increasing the probability of a defensive breakdown.
Then there’s Vance McDonald, Quinton Patton and Mario Manningham, who read like a starting lineup if you were to hand them over to Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. They are San Francisco’s backup tight end and third and fourth receivers.
To make a long story short, with the star power the 49ers currently have, it would be wise if they were able to get one of the aforementioned players going, as to take advantage of the matchups and keep the chains moving. Defenses can’t cover everyone, and this offense needs one last option in the passing game.
On Sunday, the 49ers were allowing the Atlanta offense to march down the field on them, continuing to strike back and hold its ground. Quarterback Matt Ryan was not getting hit as much as anticipated, as linebacker Aldon Smith was a virtual no-show in the game.
Drive after drive, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio relied on the base defense and its ability to get pressure with its outside linebackers.
Even though this wasn’t working—even against one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines—Fangio did not adjust. And when he finally sent a blitz at the end of the game, calling upon safety Eric Reid to blast Ryan, it resulted in the game-ending pick-six by NaVorro Bowman.
This was like grabbing your first drink right before last call. Fortunately, it did the trick just in the nick of time.
But the 49ers were at risk of losing this football game, largely because the defense had an out-of-character performance. Ideally, Fangio would have made it a point to get rookie pass-rush specialist Corey Lemonier on the field on obvious passing downs, subbing in for Glenn Dorsey in the nickel.
This never materialized.
Had the 49ers done this, employing their nickel package, they still could’ve kept Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith on the field but gotten a little more juice out of the pass rush with Lemonier.
This "NASCAR" grouping should’ve been a featured wrinkle in the defensive game plan versus Atlanta, but, instead, it was snubbed for a more conservative approach. In the future, when offenses are driving, the 49ers D will have to do a little more than line up and play matchup football.