JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After an embarrassing loss to a watered-down version of the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers looked like a rudderless team headed nowhere.
Two weeks later, the Niners look like a team that is not only capable of making the NFC playoffs but can also make noise when they get there. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ 30-10 beatdown on Sunday follows the dominant 31-10 posting by the Los Angeles Rams on Monday night.
From the outside, the first one could easily be explained away by San Francisco’s apparent hex over the Rams. The second would be excused by the general inability of the jaguars. Put together and put in context, these two victories suggest that the Niners have finally discovered themselves.
At 5-5 with two wins in less than a week, those niners aren’t your two week old neighbor’s niners.
“The last 14 days have, I don’t mean to say, changed our team, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction now,” said quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “We just have to keep going. There is still a lot of football to play.”
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There actually is. Although it was far too early to tarnish the Niners after losing to an Arizona team with no quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins (especially given the lack of NFC teams retreating with playoff spots) on November 7th, it was reasonable to wonder if they had all that was needed to get the ship in order and get into one of those seven postseason positions.
Instead, the 49ers have straightened the ship and are moving towards the Games by mid-January.
As? There are many ways in which the Niners have improved in their last two games, but nowhere is this more important than the most obvious place: the battle for sales. San Francisco was minus 9 in the deadweight differential in their first eight games, including minus 3 against Arizona. For the past two weeks, the 49ers have been plus-4, including two fumble rallies against the Jaguars.
“We sat here after the game in Arizona – take the build – everyone’s trying to solve these problems and we were literally like, ‘We have to stop flipping the ball, we have to get some defensive or special team losses, and that’s all we did, “said George Kittle.
That turnaround in sales helped the 49ers beat the Rams solidly on national television, and it opened some eyes in the process. It was exactly what a team with legitimate playoff aspirations would do to do it again to the Jaguars instead of falling into the “short week / long trip / early start time” trap six days later.
“I think it comes at the right time,” said linebacker Fred Warner. “We’re getting into the back half of the season and we’re getting hot. I think that’s exactly what we are. I think we’ve been trying all the time to find that identity, to find ourselves and it’s starting to get too show through. “
The real test of the Niners’ potential post-season hopes will come over the next seven weeks. The first, against the Minnesota Vikings next week, has two meanings. If the playoffs started today, the Niners would be eliminated, but a home win over Minnesota would allow the Niners to jump over the Vikings and give them a meaningful win for potential tiebreakers across the board. San Francisco follows with games against teams on the wider edge of the NFC playoff picture, then it meets the Seattle Seahawks on December 5th and the Atlanta Falcons on December 19th.
While all of this might look a bit too far ahead, the Niners have identified and, at least for now, corrected the issues that wiggled them to a 3-5 start.
“It was pretty low after that game in Arizona,” said coach Kyle Shanahan. “We were embarrassed about how we looked and when we looked at the tape we saw a lot of things that we thought we could fix. It wasn’t as daunting as it was during this game. I was happy with the guys When they got discouraged, they looked at the tape and saw what we could improve. It’s an honor for the guys and the coaches that they didn’t come down when it was easy to come down. They just focused To getting better and practicing and trying to get things into detail and I think we’ve done better in the past two weeks. “
A run into the postseason will depend on whether the 49ers of the past two weeks keep showing up.