For most of the 2020 season, the San Francisco 49ers have looked the part of an object lesson in the veracity of the Super Bowl hangover. After blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers have been decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball. Week 12 dawned with the Niners sitting at 4-6 and in last place in the NFC West.
When Week 12 draws to a close, the 49ers will still be in last place in the NFL's toughest division. But San Francisco got a desperately needed road win over the Los Angeles Rams this week that moved it within a game of .500.
Getting back to the postseason will still be an uphill climb for San Francisco. But the 49ers played their best game in weeks Sunday, largely because they are getting healthier. San Francisco has a good defense and one of the most creative offensive minds in the NFL calling the plays.
In other words, reports of the demise of the defending NFC champs may have been exaggerated.
The adjectives used to describe San Francisco's injuries often undersold the situation—if anything, "decimated" is an understatement. The team's starting quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo) is on injured reserve with an ankle injury. So is the team's best edge-rusher (Nick Bosa), who tore his ACL in Week 2. Star tight end George Kittle broke a bone is his foot in early November. Running back Raheem Mostert, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and cornerback Richard Sherman have all served stints on IR.
That list is by no means exhaustive, either. Running backs Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and Jeff Wilson Jr. Wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Brandon Aiyuk. Offensive tackle Trent Williams. All have missed time this season due to injuries and/or landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and that's just on offense.
With Garoppolo on the shelf, the 49ers have been forced to hand the reins to fourth-year pro Nick Mullens. The results have been mostly unimpressive—Mullens entered Week 12 averaging just over 230 passing yards a game with six touchdowns and an equal number of interceptions.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan wasn't about to lay all the blame for San Francisco's struggles on the backup quarterback. Prior to Sunday's game, he told reporters:
"Anytime you put a quarterback in there who's hasn't had two weeks in a row with the same group of receivers, whether, it was Jimmy at first, it was us in training camp, and now it's been Nick every week, and the same thing with the running backs and the O-line. So, I think that's been a huge challenge for Nick, and it would be for C.J. (Beathard) if he gets in, and it was for Jimmy.
"So, I think it's a little unfair to judge the quarterbacks a hundred percent on how they've been each game in terms of stats and the score and things like that. I try to just watch the situations they're in, what I think they're capable of doing, and I think Nick has played like Nick."
Mullens didn't light it up against the Rams—he was 24-of-35 for 252 yards and a pick. But he did a good job for the most part of playing within Shanahan's scheme and avoiding mistakes.
The big difference in the game may have been the players around Mullens. Mostert was back on the field for the first time since Week 6 and paced all running backs with 16 carries and a touchdown. Samuel played for the first time since Week 7 and caught 11 passes for 133 yards.
Shanahan wasn't shy about his praise for Samuel's effort.
"I can't tell you how good Deebo was today," Shanahan told reporters. "I always mess with him because I'm a soft compliment guy, so Deebo's got a lot to work on, but he's one of the best football players I've been around."
Samuel and the offense deserve plenty of credit for the team's big Week 12 win, but the defense played its part, too. Sherman played his first game since the opener and notched an interception. Veteran edge-rusher Kerry Hyder Jr., who has been thrust into a full-time role by injuries to Bosa and Dee Ford, sacked Jared Goff twice.
The Niners notched four takeaways in the game, surrendered just 308 yards and allowed only four third-down conversions in 13 attempts. The 49ers gave up just one offensive touchdown. It might not have been the stifling San Francisco defense of a year ago, but it was pretty dang good.
At 5-6, the 49ers are now just a game behind the Arizona Cardinals in both the NFC West and the race for the seventh (and final, at least as of now) playoff spot in the conference. San Francisco faces those Redbirds in Glendale in Week 16, one week before closing things out against the rival Seahawks. It's a rough end to a schedule that includes a "home" date with the Bills in Week 13's Monday Night Football.
Or at least, it would be a home game if the 49ers had a home.
As Ian Rapoport reported for NFL.com, the new COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Santa Clara County ban all contact sports and mandate a 14-day quarantine for anyone traveling into the area from 150 miles away.
In other words, no more football at Levi's Stadium. The Niners will likely play their remaining "home" games either in Arizona or Texas, which doesn't sit well with the team's head coach.
The thing is, there isn't a team in the league better equipped to handle that adversity than the Niners. It's all they have done this year, whether it's the injuries or a ridiculous schedule stretch that included (get this) the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks, Packers and Saints in successive weeks.
Much of the credit for weathering those storms should go to Shanahan. He has kept his team focused as the injuries mounted. He has constantly changed up the offense to account for the ever-shifting personnel. It can be argued that he has done the best coaching job of his career in 2020.
It's going to take some more magic to get San Francisco back to the tournament. The 49ers have three games left against teams with better records. Perhaps no home stadium the rest of the way. And an offense that, while getting healthier, still isn't great.
But the 49ers have shown that they can step up when the pressure is highest. Most of the teams directly ahead of them in the NFC have looked vulnerable in recent weeks. And the offense should get that much better when rookie wideout Brandon Aiyuk returns from the COVID-19 list.
The 49ers have been beaten, battered and bloodied in 2020. And the odds are stacked against the franchise making the playoffs. But with five weeks to play, a team that no one would fault for folding hasn't. Not yet.
Count them out at your own peril.