The San Francisco 49ers (5-6) kept their season alive with a 23-20 last-second victory over the then-NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams (7-4).
Although they don’t have much more room for error, the 49ers find themselves in the thick of the playoff race thanks to the winning culture built by Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch and Robert Saleh.
San Francisco is just one back of the Arizona Cardinals (6-5) for the final wild card spot, with five games remaining.
Here are three thoughts from the season-saving victory:
There’s plenty of blame to go around when pinpointing why the 49ers lost three straight.
Whether you blame the play-calling, the offensive line or the quarterback is up to you, but there’s no denying the offense in particular was missing an edge.
The 49ers were hungry for toughness. They got that with the return of their best two running backs and wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
Raheem Mostert (16 rushes for 43 yards and a touchdown) and Jeff Wilson Jr. (12 rushes for 43 yards) opened up the offense for Nick Mullens, but both fumbled.
Samuel’s 11 catches for 133 yards was much more vital to the 49ers’ success. It was reminiscent of Michael Crabtree’s 125-yard performance in the 2014 Wild Card game at Green Bay.
With just one minute and 55 seconds remaining, the 49ers were facing a third-and-2 on their own 28-yard line.
A conversion would extend their chances at pulling off the upset. A failure would force a punt, and give Los Angeles one last shot to maintain first place.
The 49ers had their back against the wall and did what any team in any sport should do when in that situation. They gave the ball to their best player (Samuel), and let him do his thing (make plays).
It was only right Greg Jennings was on the call for a wide receiver putting the team on his back. (Google “Greg Jennings Madden” for an NSFW laugh).
Mullens hit Samuel, who broke a tackle and gained 24 yards.
He would find Samuel two more times before fullback Kyle Juszczyk and Mostert set up Robbie Gould for the win.
If you put the ball in your playmakers’ hands, good things happen. The 49ers did that at volume Sunday, and were rewarded with their best win of the season.
The 49ers got their leader back
San Francisco was relying on future All-Pro Fred Warner, career backup Kerry Hyder Jr. and oft-injured Jason Verrett to keep its defense alive.
Warner has 85 tackles, four QB hits, four TFLs and two interceptions. Hyder leads the team with 7.5 sacks. Verrett’s lockdown coverage created versatility for play-calling.
Despite their solid production, the 49ers were still missing an on-field leader that instilled fear into their opponents.
They got that with the return of Richard Sherman. The vocal captain of the defense stepped in after a nine-game absence without missing a beat.
Sherman’s performance might get overshadowed by Samuel, but it should not be discarded.
With no signs of injury, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh employed the surprisingly versatile Sherman in a variety of ways to confuse Jared Goff.
Sherman was his usual physical self and at times, looked to know the play before it was snapped. He finished with seven tackles, one for loss, and the interception.
He helped shutdown Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds and the tight ends. Robert Woods was the only way Goff could move the ball.
Sherman and Saleh’s dominance of Sean McVay, Goff and Kupp kept things close long enough for the 49ers’ offense to come alive.
San Francisco does not win this game without Sherman.
The “Buckner Trio” showed out
The 49ers shocked the NFL when they traded their best player in the offseason. The move can roughly be seen as a swap of DeForest Buckner for Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward and Javon Kinlaw.
Buckner is clearly a better player than all three.
But the 49ers banked on continued production from Ward and Armstead, with Kinlaw eventually taking over Buckner’s impact.
They sacrificed some current talent to invest in the future and provide more financial flexibility.
Unfortunately, production from Armstead, Ward and Kinlaw was close to nonexistent for the first nine weeks of the season.
But starting with Kinlaw’s breakout against New Orleans Week 10, the “Buckner trio” has really stepped things up.
In Sunday’s victory, Ward had a pass deflection and two forced fumbles. Armstead stuffed Darrell Henderson and defended the run quite well. Kinlaw made a major impact when he dropped back in coverage and intercepted Goff for his first career pick-six.
If their offseason investments in Kinlaw, Armstead and Ward can build off their latest performances, this defense would go from good to elite.
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