Kurtenbach: The 49ers have become true contenders for the NFC crown

There was a point this season when the Niners were 3-5, and they had just been embarrassed by the Arizona Cardinals and their backup quarterback at home. The playoffs looked eons away.

The walls around this team were seemingly crumbling.

Look again.

Six games and five wins later, the Niners are on the precipice of clinching a spot in the playoffs. They could be in with weeks to play. And given that they hold two important tiebreakers, it’d be stunning if they didn’t qualify for the postseason.

As 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the 31-13 win over the Falcons, “it’s a long season.”

The way the Niners are playing now, they have a chance to make the season even longer.

The 49ers made a statement on Sunday. Their comprehensive win over an inferior team told the rest of the NFL that they’re a team to be reckoned with this winter.

And in an NFC where there appears to be no dominant team, the 49ers are rightly asking why they can’t make some noise in the three-week tournament.

“I think we’re peaking at a good time,” Niners fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who had a rushing touchdown Sunday, said after the win over Atlanta. “I should preface that by saying that we’re definitely not playing as best we can… But I do think we’re playing some good ball right now. We’re stacking some weeks.”

These Niners have graduated back to the place they thought they would always be this season — they’re now legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Leading the way has been the offense, which has found a rhythm and balance. They’re booming up the yards-per-play leaderboard in the last few weeks. Jimmy Garoppolo is playing his best football since 2019. George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk have been downright unguardable in the passing game and have inflicted more damage onto defenders than they have received.

In all, the Niners are a physical bunch with a brilliant offensive play-caller who can create massive passing windows and one-on-one situations for a noble stable of running backs.

Add in a Niners defense that has enough playmakers — including arguably the best defender in the NFL this season, defensive end Nick Bosa — and San Francisco should not find itself burned. Sunday provided a good example of that: The 49ers defense, led by Fred Warner, stopped Atlanta on three different fourth-down attempts.

This is the kind of football that’s made to win in this part of the regular season. This is the kind of football that saw the Niners roll over their two opponents in the 2019 NFC playoffs.

Now, this Niners team isn’t nearly as talented or powerful as that 2019 squad. To start with differences, San Francisco is likely to have to play three road games — rather than two at home — to make the Super Bowl in Los Angeles in February.

Still, if this offense can remain mistake-free, they have enough talent to put four touchdowns on the board every game while controlling the clock and the tenor of the contest.

So much relies on Garoppolo continuing to play well. Atlanta wasn’t going to be the team that tripped him up on that — he didn’t need more than one read to facilitate big plays Sunday.

Still, there’s no question that he’s been more judicious and accurate with his passes as of late. The Niners’ offensive line deserves a ton of credit — it’s a boon to have arguably the most talented player in the NFL, left tackle Trent Williams, protecting his blind side — but Garoppolo has unquestionably upped his game.

I roll my eyes at folks who think that “all he does is win” is good analysis. Jared Goff and Case Keenum have won a ton of games when they had good teams around them — not so when they did not.

But there is something to be said about No. 10’s ability to up his game, to get into the zone. His leadership abilities on the field have never been questioned.

Perhaps that’s why he’s been money in late-game scenarios throughout his career. He seems to be tapping into that energy for whole games as of late.

Juszczyk joked that he saw a different “aura” around Garoppolo at breakfast on Sunday.

“You could just feel it from him,” the fullback said. “George [Kittle] and I looked at each other and said ‘Jimmy is ready to go today’… It’s contagious.”

“We’re going to go as far as Jimmy takes us.”

That means the Niners could end up burned by Garoppolo, whose play, on the whole, isn’t without fair detraction. He’s still the same quarterback, and the right defense can flummox him to the point of a meltdown.

The Niners’ woeful cornerback play could be this team’s downfall, too. My goodness, they’re playing a dangerous game on the outside.

Or perhaps special teams will be their downfall — that unit has been embarrassing as of late.

But with three games remaining in the season and eight wins already to their name, the Niners are effectively playing with a huge stack of chips. A good place to be for a front-running team.

One more win — Thursday at Nashville, at home on Jan. 2 vs. the Texans, or, heaven forbid it comes to this, in the regular-season finale against the Rams in Los Angeles, and the Niners are in the playoffs. The right losses to the right teams might even negate the need for that win.

The 49ers’ focus should not be on winning for the sake of making the postseason, though.

No, Clinching and seeding will take care of themselves if the Niners keep trying to build momentum behind this brand of football.

Most seasons, it’s the hottest team that wins the conference.

In this wild NFL season of incredible parity, there’s no question that will be the case this postseason.

And with the way these Niners are playing — flaws and all — if they can keep it up, they have as fair a shot as anyone come January.

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