The 49ers have four games remaining. Two wins and they’re in the playoffs. One might even get it done.
But merely making the playoffs isn’t the goal, right?
No, if this team makes the tournament, they should try to go all the way.
And the only way that will be possible is if this team starts playing its best football starting Sunday against the Falcons.
Some spots on the 49ers’ roster look ready for the challenge.
Others, not as much.
The Niners will define their season in the next few weeks. Here are my three biggest questions heading into these critical games:
Can the Niners re-establish the run game without Elijah Mitchell?
The 49ers’ top running back this season is out for Sunday’s big game against Atlanta and likely the Thursday Night affair with the Titans on Dec. 23.
If the Niners win those two games, they’re in the playoffs — no questions asked.
If they lose both games, the final two weeks of the season become hairy.
San Francisco has a preferred way of offense — running the ball. The ideal back would be Raheem Mostert, but he’s missed the entire season. With Mitchell, a rookie out of Louisiana-Lafayette, and Deebo Samuel, they have been able to create a reasonable facsimile of Mostert — powerful runs and big-play ability — and that has established a run game that can beat defenses that sell out to stop it.
A quarter of Samuel’s runs are explosive — 10-plus yards. Mitchell has nearly the same percentage.
Wilson has two explosive runs in 44 carries this year.
Without the explosive runs, the run game stalls and the Niners have to pass. That can be a big problem. (More on that later.)
In the last three weeks, we’ve seen opposing defenses completely sell out to stop the Niners’ run game.
With Mitchell in the contest, it didn’t work. But in the second halves of the Seattle and Bengals game, the Niners had to throw — the run game didn’t have any juice.
It’s really quite simple: You can’t run the option — three yards and a cloud of dust — at the NFL level. You need to spring a few to break the will of a defense and pick up some first downs, too.
The Niners have found success this season with long opening drives, but that is not a sustainable model for success.
Can Wilson and Samuel replicate the Niners’ success from Weeks 10 and 11 — their two best offensive weeks of the season?
If they can, the Niners will beat Atlanta, give Tennessee a game, and they’ll coast into the playoffs, arguably playing their best football in December — as true contenders do.
If they cannot, the Niners’ offense is going to be looking for answers at the end of the regular season. They might make the playoffs anyway. They might not. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for San Francisco.
Can the Niners’ defensive line cover for San Francisco’s corners?
This is a pretty straightforward question. The Niners’ cornerbacks are not good — arguably the worst in the NFL right now. Josh Norman might be an elite puncher of the football, but he doesn’t have a puncher’s chance in keeping up with receivers running deep routes (or in routes, either). Whether it’s Ambry Thomas, Deommodore Lenoir, or Dontae Johnson on the boundary side, the Niners are cooked.
Safeties can help their corners. As can linebackers. Good play-calling from defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans remains vital. He’s been good as of late.
But you know what really helps cornerbacks?
A great pass rush.
So right around now would be a great time for someone else to step up and help Nick Bosa out on the defensive line.
DJ Jones did his part as of late, but he’s injured.
Arden Key has been a nice interior pass rusher as of late, but is he really the team’s No. 2 pass rusher?
Charles Omenihu has been solid as a five-technique, but he’s not an every-down player.
Arik Armstead is having another typical season, where he plays to the point of plausible deniability. You can’t say he’s either good or bad. He just is…
Samson Ebukam has played better as of late. Can he take it to another gear?
Bosa has been one of the NFL’s best players this season. He’s getting double-teamed like crazy and offensive lines can key in on him, because they’re not afraid of anyone else.
This Niners’ defensive line isn’t going to be the 2019 edition. No sir. But can it be better than last year’s?
That’s not a tall order.
If it can, the Niners’ defense stands a chance of limiting their opponents in the upcoming weeks and this team will coast into the playoffs.
If not, those corners are going to have to fend for themselves. I don’t like their chances.
How long is Jimmy’s leash?
I hear it all the time. You’ve probably heard it too. “Trey Lance is nowhere near ready.”
Is that true?
It seems like a bold proclamation to make. It’s certainly not something that Shanahan has said. In fact, no one at the Niners facility in Santa Clara is saying it — at least in my conversations with them.
No, it seems as if Shanahan’s actual statement: “Trey will start when I think he gives us the best chance to win,” has been put through the wringer — a bizarre game of telephone.
And here we are, in a place where I receive messages every day from people outside the facility who don’t just imply, but outright declare that Lance is effectively inept and incapable of playing for the 49ers this season.
The truth is that we don’t know if Lance is ready to take over this 49ers offense next season, next week, or on the next play. Niners coaches and players rave about Lance’s work as the team’s scout team quarterback, but who knows if that success is even remotely applicable to playing and being successful in an NFL game. The Shanahan-style offense is widespread around the league, but I’d venture to think that working the Bengals or Seahawks’ offense for the week won’t do much to prepare you for being the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback.
Still, Lance is the San Francisco backup. He’s the next man in should Garoppolo be injured or falter. And given the state of the run game without Mitchell and defenses daring Garoppolo to throw it, faltering is a real possibility down the stretch.
Garoppolo threw 41 passes against Cincinnati. That provided a whole bunch of opportunities for mistakes. And if not for a Jessie Bates dropped interception, the Niners likely lose that game.
The week before that, Garoppolo threw two interceptions. The first was an egregious error where he didn’t see Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, who didn’t really move from his spot in the middle of the field. The second was a bad decision and worse overthrow of George Kittle over the middle, allowing Seattle’s Quandre Diggs to catch the ball like it came out of a Juggs machine on a low setting.
And who could forget the week before that, when Shanahan ripped into Garoppolo on the sideline after the quarterback threw a brutal interception over the middle that Harrison Smith picked off with ease?
Garoppolo’s play has not been trending the right way as of late. In the last three games, he’s dropped back 105 times and has five turnover-worthy plays.
Between Weeks 9 and 11 — when the Niners’ run game was buzzing — he had only one such play on 91 dropbacks.
The Niners can’t win if Garoppolo turns the ball over — he doesn’t have the arm strength or guile to make up for game-changing mistakes with a game-changing, defense-exploding throw.
So I’m left to wonder: if the 49ers find themselves in a scenario where they need a win but the run game can’t rumble and Garoppolo is struggling — if he repeats his mistakes the last three weeks but fails to settle down afterward — will Shanahan go to his backup?
I doubt it, but I don’t outright dismiss it, because I saw Shanahan leaning into Garoppolo on the sidelines and I don’t buy the “Lance isn’t anywhere near ready” narrative.
Shanahan could absolutely ride with Garoppolo until the wheels come off — stubbornness is one of the coach’s trademark characteristics.
But this season likely has another massive wrinkle left in it. There’s another big, season-defining moment yet to come. I can feel it in my bones.
Lance coming in with the playoffs on the line would certainly qualify, no?