SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In 2021, the San Francisco 49ers took one of the most difficult paths to the playoffs imaginable. Their postseason hopes hung by a tiny thread until the final moments of the final game of the season against the Los Angeles Rams before they punched their ticket.
This year, the Niners are in no such position. They wrapped up the NFC West with three games to spare and entered last week’s matchup against the Washington Commanders knowing they could do no worse than the No. 3 seed in the NFC.
And yet, despite a bit of a flat start against Washington, San Francisco played with the urgency of the 2021 group in surging to a 37-20 victory, its eighth in a row, to move to 11-4 on the season.
For a team that has already dealt with more than its share of injury issues in 2022, it’s fair to wonder why the 49ers aren’t taking their foot off the gas with an eye towards the postseason. But there are also plenty of reasons why they have no desire to slow down.
“Depending on what happens with the two in front of us, No. 1 seed still isn’t out of the picture,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “The No. 2 seed is still well within reach … To get into the playoffs, that’s just the broad goal. Everybody wants to get there. But once you get there, the job isn’t finished. Now you want to get as many home games as possible, first-round bye if possible, and I think all of that is well within reach so we do have something to play for.”
Indeed, with two games to play the 49ers already know their playoff seeding floor. They can, however, move up from No. 3 if they get help elsewhere.
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Let’s start with the much-coveted No. 1 spot. It’s the only seed that comes with a first-round bye and offers home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Niners know the benefits of those things from their playoff run in 2019, when they convincingly won a pair of playoff games against the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers on the way to Super Bowl LIV.
As it stands, moving up two spots to No. 1 remains a long shot but is a bit more realistic now than it was a week ago. The Philadelphia Eagles need just one more win to clinch the top spot but quarterback Jalen Hurts is dealing with a shoulder injury and star tackle Lane Johnson is out for the rest of the regular season with an abdominal injury. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Niners a 0.3% chance of getting the No. 1 seed.
How can the 49ers catch them? It’s simple. If the Niners win their final two games (at the Las Vegas Raiders and home against the Arizona Cardinals), the Eagles lose their final two contests (at home against the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants) and the Vikings lose one of their final two games (at Green Bay and at Chicago), the 49ers would leap to No. 1.
More realistic is moving up to the No. 2 seed, which doesn’t come with a bye but would guarantee at least two home games in the wild card and divisional rounds should the Niners advance. It would also open the possibility of hosting the NFC Championship game if the No. 1 seed were to lose. FPI gives the Niners a 42% chance of moving to No. 2.
Staying at Levi’s Stadium for a team that regularly ranks among the most traveled in the league and had two week-long stays outside of California this season is no small thing.
“Last time we had two playoff home games, they went really well,” tight end George Kittle said. “Levi’s rocks out for the playoffs. The tough thing about being in San Francisco is they’re long road games, so hopefully we can stay at home as long as possible. If you can take off a 10-hour flight — five hours there, five hours back — off your legs and your body, it’s really helpful for us. So, two home playoff games would be huge. That’s the goal.”
As an added bonus, if the Niners can avoid a divisional round game in Minnesota, they would have no more games on artificial surfaces this season. In what has become a hot topic around the league, prominent players such as Kittle and end Nick Bosa have been among the most outspoken about some of the non-grass surfaces they have to play on.
“That would be nice,” Kittle said. “Whatever makes Bosa happy, honestly. If he’s happy, he’s gonna play at a high level.”
That’s not to say the Niners will take chances with players who might need additional rest time to recover from injuries. Wideout Deebo Samuel, for example, has been doing some light running on the side and seems to be recovering well from a sprained left ankle and knee. Coach Kyle Shanahan said Samuel could have potentially returned as early as last week but only if the Niners were “desperate.” They’re not, so they can take their time to get Samuel as healthy as possible entering the postseason.
What’s more, the 49ers have a rookie quarterback in Brock Purdy, who could use all the game reps he can get before the playoffs. The chance to play and learn now could only benefit him come January.
As if all of that wasn’t enough to keep the Niners motivated and pushing towards the postseason, Shanahan has made it clear he doesn’t believe in resting just to rest. As he says to his team, football doesn’t come with an on/off switch. The Niners got in this position by playing their best football at the right time in November and December, and if they slow down now, it could be hard to get back to the level they’ve reached in their eight-game win streak.
“I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes people make just watching it over the years,” Shanahan said. “That’s my opinion, I would understand if you were getting ready for a seven-game series, I don’t think football is like that. It’s three and a half hours. It’s one shot.”