SANTA CLARA – The 49ers’ Last Chance Saloon opens up Sunday in Los Angeles.
It’s no dive bar. Logistically, it’s actually in Inglewood at SoFi Stadium, the Rams’ and Chargers’ first-year home. The 49ers’ inaugural visit must spark a late-season kick if they are to overcome the postseason odds.
The 49ers (4-6) have never reached the playoffs with seven losses in tow. That said, the NFL has never reserved room for as many playoff teams as this season.
“We are not out of the playoffs, yet,” coach Kyle Shanahan said last Tuesday, before going dark for the bye week.
At least seven teams will make the NFC field, thanks to last May’s approval of a third wild-card entry. An eighth playoff team will be added in each conference if the COVID-19 surge prompts game cancellations.
So, faint light exists, as bleak as this 49ers’ season looks amid star players’ injuries, COVID-19 complications (nine Niners are now on that reserve list) and double-digit losses, of which they endured three in a row before their bye.
No one expects the 49ers to win out and become the franchise’s sixth team to make the playoffs at 10-6. Well, no one other than Kyle Shanahan, who’s cleverly mentioned that he and his dad, Mike, coached Washington’s 2012 team from the 3-6 dregs to a 10-6 final record that earned the NFC East title.
Here are areas that must fall the 49ers’ way to incredulously land the franchise’s 27th postseason berth in 75 seasons:
Running back Raheem Mostert, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and cornerback Richard Sherman are among those expected to return from injuries and multi-game absences. Mostert and Samuel have each missed six games, and Sherman hasn’t played since hurting his calf in the season opener. The 49ers have sorely lacked their play-making ability and sheer presence.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) and tight end George Kittle (foot) were feared lost for the season with their Nov. 1 injuries in Seattle, but they haven’t been ruled out, and that element of hope helps no matter how remote their comebacks actually are.
More reinforcements should also come with running backs Jeff Wilson and Tevin Coleman, center Ben Garland and special-teams ace Mark Nzeocha. As for defensive linemen Dee Ford and Ronald Blair, no word yet on if they’re in or out for the final push.
The 49ers’ next three opponents will be coming off cross-country trips, and traveling could get more complicated as COVID-19 cases rise. The Rams will be coming off a short week of preparation after playing Monday night in Tampa. After that, the 49ers host Buffalo (Dec. 7) and Washington (Dec. 13).
The Rams are the only NFC West team the 49ers have beaten this season, the third straight win for coach Kyle Shanahan against former protégé Sean McVay. So the 49ers know this opponent more intimately than any other.
That said, these 49ers are not the ones who raced to a 21-6 halftime lead and prevailed 24-16 on Oct. 18, when Garoppolo and Kittle excelled. But the 49ers defense remains relatively intact, at least from that victory.
Topping the Rams, and then beating the Bills in their first Levi’s Stadium visit, would mean a win streak. The 49ers have been streaky under Shanahan: 0-9 start to 2017, 8-0 start to last season, and, well, the current three-game slide.
BETTER PASS RUSH
The Rams’ Jared Goff will be without blind-side protector Andrew Whitworth. Then, presumably, comes Josh Allen, Alex Smith and whoever is quarterbacking the Dallas Cowboys by Dec. 20.
That lineup is less daunting than Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and, for a decisive half, Drew Brees.
Not having Nick Bosa or Dee Ford proved how ineffective the 49ers’ pass rush would be, unable to finish pursuits the past two months. But the more that unit’s played together, the better chances of meshing for a stretch run.
Now the question is whether COVID-19 quarantine will keep their defensive linemen out of action. Among the nine Niners on the COVID-19 reserve list are Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Jones and Jordan Willis.
The 49ers’ run game, dating back to last season, looks so much more dangerous with Mostert’s speed and vision. If Wilson and Coleman join Jerick McKinnon, then the 49ers could regain their run-first dominance.
Also helping that rushing resurgence would be an offensive line that started slow this season. The line’s communication is seemingly improved, and Daniel Brunskill now has two starts under his belt at center. Trent Williams’ positive COVID-19 test, taken Thursday, puts his availability in question — a huge question.
The 49ers ran for only 3.3 yards per carry in their last meeting with the Rams, but they muted Aaron Donald’s potential dominance, so running away from him remains the wise play.
As for the passing game, Nick Mullens has played enough (four starts, two relief appearances) to settle in for late-season credibility that could recapture his stock as a pending restricted free agent.
The No. 1 key: avoid turnovers. They’ve had 14 in their six losses.
The 49ers have 41 players slated to hit free agency. This final stretch offers those healthy enough a last-ditch chance to not only impress the 49ers’ brass but convince potential suitors to hire them next March.
Atop that list is Trent Williams, the blind-side protector who’s recaptured Pro Bowl stature after sitting out last season.
“We’ve got a lot of good players and we’ve worked real hard to build our roster up,” Shanahan said last week, “and that’s why we’ve had to make tough decisions last year and we’re going to have to do it again this year, but everything’s tied together.
“I know Trent is very important to me and very important to our team and someone I want around here for a while.”
Rather than splinter off in self interest, the 49ers have shown encouraging unity. “I think we have guys on this team capable of finishing this the right way,” Shanahan added.
Could a 4-2 finish and 8-8 overall record be enough to snag a wild-card spot? Maybe it’ll take 9-7 to outduel their NFC West and NFC North challengers, plus the NFC South runner-up.
If a 10-6 record is required, this 49ers team would make franchise history that way, seeing how the other five times they’ve made the playoffs at 10-6, they did so with at least a 5-5 mark after 10 games (1985). Their other 10-6 playoff teams came in 1983 (6-4 start), 1988 (6-4), 1993 (7-3), and 2002 (7-2).
These 49ers already have doubled last season’s loss total (of three). No one is talking about last season anymore, not the way this year has gone — or will finish.