3 Mistakes the 49ers Must Avoid to Lock Up an NFC Playoff Berth

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2021

3 Mistakes the 49ers Must Avoid to Lock Up an NFC Playoff Berth

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    The San Francisco 49ers' quest to get a playoff berth in the NFC took a hit on Sunday with the team's surprising 30-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks

    Heading into the game with a 6-5 record against their struggling divisional rivals, it looked like they were primed to get a tighter grip on a wild-card spot. Instead, Russell Wilson and Co. looked better than they have in a while and rallied to surprise the Niners and make their path to the playoffs a little more rocky. 

    It's not time to hit the panic button. According to FiveThirtyEight, Kyle Shanahan's team still has a 62 percent chance to make the final 14-team field. 

    But the margin for error is getting thinner for the 6-6 49ers. With five games left in the season, they are at a crossroads, and they still have the Rams, Titans and Bengals left on the slate. 

    Here are three things they need to avoid to ensure success over the last five games and get back into the postseason. 

Putting Too Much on Jimmy Garoppolo's Plate

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    The 49ers can win games with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, but they have to do so within his limitations. 

    Garoppolo has been a fine passer this year in the intermediate game. According to Sports Info Solutions, he is rated seventh in quarterback rating on intermediate throws. However, on deep balls or the short game, he hasn't been nearly as good. 

    His IQR on short passes is 26th in the league. He sinks to 18th on deep passes. 

    With that in mind, it's hard to imagine that letting Garoppolo throw 30 times as he did in the loss to the Seahawks is the best way forward. 

    That isn't necessarily an indictment on the coaching staff. It's hard not to lean into the passing game when you are averaging 2.8 yards per carry like they were against the Seahawks. 

    However, the result should have clued the coaching staff into the fact that the offense and the team are at its best when they can utilize the running game, then allow Jimmy G to make the throws he's good at by attacking the middle of the defense. 

Not Incorporating Trey Lance in the Offense

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    The 49ers have made it clear they aren't interested in starting Trey Lance this season. That's fine. It may be frustrating for fans to watch their top-five selection ride the pine while Garoppolo starts for another year, but there's a case to be made the veteran is playing well enough for them to win right now. 

    But that shouldn't mean that Lance is non-existent in the offense. 

    For instance, the Niners struggled to run the ball against the Seahawks. That run game could have looked different if there was at least a package in which Lance was given the opportunity to come in as a run-pass threat at quarterback. 

    On the season, Lance has 137 yards on 30 rushing attempts. That includes an 89-yard performance when he got the start against the Arizona Cardinals

    The Niners love Lance for his physical tools. He played in a system at North Dakota State that featured him on plenty of designed runs. Maybe Lance, who has completed just 52 percent of his passes this season, isn't ready to be the full-time starter, but he would be a threat to defenses especially as a sparkplug for a running game that can stall at times. 

    Shanahan has been creative with the run game this season, featuring Deebo Samuel when injuries have forced his hand. Now it's time to let his rookie quarterback pitch in. 

Not Mixing It Up Against Joe Burrow

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    There's no way around it, the 49ers have a tough matchup with a lot on the line come Sunday. 

    With a win against the Cincinnati Bengals, their playoff odds go up to 80 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. With a loss, those odds plummet to 47 percent and we are in coin-flip territory. 

    The Bengals are facing a crossroads of their own. They are locked into a tough AFC North race with little margin for error and are coming off a brutal 41-22 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers

    That final score is a bit misleading, though. The Bengals fell down 24-0 early and fought back to make a 24-22 game at one point. They had two turnovers and gave up a defensive touchdown. On the season, Burrow has been dangerous. 

    He's PFF's third-highest-graded quarterback. And what's worse is that there's no clear way to defend him. 

    According to PFF, he has the highest grade in the league against the blitz (93.9), but he's also the second-highest graded passer when throwing beyond his first read

    So stopping Burrow and getting their playoff chances moving in the right direction is going to mean finding a way to get pressure with the front four and mixing up their blitzes and coverages enough to make him uncomfortable in the pocket without getting too blitz-heavy.