SANTA CLARA — Believe it or not, the 49ers have not clinched a spot in the playoffs.
A sarcastic observation to be sure, and one made out of the general perception that their three-game win streak and 6-5 record have cured all the ills of an unsightly four-game losing streak that had the 49ers’ 2021 season on life support.
With a road game against the fading Seattle Seahawks (3-8) up next on Sunday, it seems a lot of people have looked at the last six games and concluded there’s no way the 49ers, currently the No. 6 seed, could fall below the seventh and final spot in the NFC tournament.
Catching Arizona (9-2) appears out of reach with the 49ers having lost both games of the series, but the Rams (7-4) have lost three straight ever since going “all-in” and signing linebacker Von Miller in their latest purge of draft capital.
But things are more precarious than they appear. Coach Kyle Shanahan knows NFL success can be fleeting and believes his team knows it too. If the young players didn’t realize that, surely they do now after having experienced four straight losses this season.
“I think our guys are pretty humble,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “We’re one game over .500. They don’t need me to tell them that. This league is different each week. We don’t look at it as we’ve just arrived, we look at it as if we’ve done right three weeks in a row.”
The 49ers remaining six games are set up like this: at Seattle, at Cincinnati (7-4), Atlanta (5-6), at Tennessee (8-4), Houston (2-9) and at the Los Angeles Rams.
The aggregate record of those foes is 32-35 and the Titans, like the Rams, appear to be fading with Derrick Henry out for the season.
Rather than delve into the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent, the 49er fate will rest with their own 53-man roster and coaching staff, and here are a few areas that could rise up and send their fan base back into the panic mode that existed in Weeks 3 through 9 when they won exactly once and were 3-5:
Cornerback Jason Verrett and running back Raheem Mostert didn’t even make it past the regular-season opener. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey and defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw are done for the year. Tight end George Kittle and running back Elijah Mitchell have each missed two games and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo one. Trent Williams missed a game.
The 49ers’ entire 2020 season was destoryed because of injuries. I guess it’s possible they’re due for a run of good luck, but the more likely scenario is something bleaker. It may have already begun. Wide receiver/running back Deebo Samuel and middle linebacker Fred Warner, two of the 49ers’ best players, are out this week. Samuel has a groin injury and Warner a hamstring strain.
Groins and hamstrings can be tricky and subject to aggravation. Road games in Seattle have never been easy for the 49ers, and the absences of Samuel and Warner, make Sunday’s game more of a tossup than a mismatch.
If the 49ers were to lose on the road to Seattle and then the following week to a pretty good Cincinnati team playing its best football, how good is everyone going to feel about 6-7?
And If Garoppolo, Kittle or Nick Bosa were to go down, the 49ers could be on the outside looking in.
2. Hitting a wall
Over the past three games, the 49ers have run the ball 125 times and thrown 67 passes. They’ve been able to do this through their own will, of course, but also game circumstance has given Shanahan the ability to keep dialing up runs as a play-caller.
Surely a team or three is going to load the box on the 49ers and dare them to pass. Or an opposing offense is going to break away in terms of margin and the 49ers won’t be able to simply sit on a lead and put the game in a stranglehold.
When that happens, the 49ers will be a much different team. The offense with Garoppolo isn’t built to throw 35 to 40 times. And the more times Garoppolo throws it, the likelihood of a turnover or an injury after being sacked goes up.
As for Trey Lance, we found out what Shanahan thinks of the rookie’s readiness to play when he doubled down on Garoppolo and the running attack when the 49ers were 3-5. Shanahan even said Monday using Lance would interrupt his rhythm as a play-caller.
3. A leaky secondary
Veteran Josh Norman has a Peanut Tillman/Charles Woodson ability to force fumbles. It’s a great skill that has served the 49ers well. Norman has done it an amazing seven times.
But is there anyone who truly trusts Norman as a cover corner at age 33? Emmanuel Moseley on the other side is more reliable and slot corner K’Waun Williams have had their moments, but it sure looked like Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson and Adam Theilen were both capable of having huge days with more offensive possessions. Free safety Jimmie Ward had his first interceptions in five years against the Rams. Jaquaski Tartt and Talanoa Hufanga are better as enforcers than in coverage as strong safeties.
Seattle has D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett to worry about and if Russell Wilson finds himself after struggling with a surgically repaired middle finger on his throwing hand, the Seahawks could do some damage. The following weeks bring two big rookie challenges — Cincinnati wideout J’Marr Chase and Atlanta tight end Kyle Pitts (who is often split or put in the slot). Chase was the No. 5 pick in the draft and Pitts was No. 4.
Even more than usual, the 49ers secondary relies on a pass rush that forces the issue — which is why keeping Bosa fresh is paramount. He’s played more snaps than anyone envisioned coming off a torn ACL and has 11 sacks. But the 49ers pass rush has been anemic aside from Bosa — no other player has more than three sacks. Considering Dee Ford has played in 18 of 43 games since he arrived from Kansas City, it’s probably better to assume you won’t have him and consider anything he does a plus.
The bottom line, as Shanahan said, is the 49ers are a 6-5 team. And there are reasons why they lost five times, even if it hasn’t happened since Nov. 7.
Given the dearth of solid teams in the NFC, and that the Nos. 7, 8 and 9 seeds at this point are Washington, Minnesota and Atlanta, the 49ers are in a position to be playing some additional January football.
Yet the 49ers have also shown they can be unlucky and flawed, which makes it far from a lock.