After an embarrassing loss to a watered-down version of the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers had the look of a rudderless team headed for nowhere.
Two weeks later, the Niners look like a team that is not only capable of making a push for the NFC playoffs but one that can make some noise if they get there. Sunday’s 30-10 beatdown of the Jacksonville Jaguars follows Monday night’s dominant 31-10 dispatching of the Los Angeles Rams.
From the outside, the first could easily be explained away by San Francisco’s apparent hex over the Rams. The second would be excused by the Jaguars’ overall ineptitude. Put together and into the proper context, those two victories suggest that the Niners have finally discovered themselves.
At 5-5 with two wins in less than a week, these Niners aren’t your 2-week-old neighbor’s Niners.
“These past 14 days have, I don’t want to say changed our team, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction now,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “We have just got to keep going. There’s a lot of football left to be played.”
Indeed there is. While it was way too soon to kick dirt on the Niners after that Nov. 7 loss to an Arizona team without quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins (especially given the dearth of NFC teams pulling away with playoff spots), it was reasonable to wonder whether they had what was needed to right the ship and make a push for one of those seven postseason positions.
Instead, the 49ers have righted the ship and are moving in the direction of playing games into the middle of January.
How? There are plenty of ways in which the Niners have improved in their past two games but nowhere is it more important than the most obvious place: the turnover battle. San Francisco was minus-9 in takeaway differential in its first eight games, including minus-3 against Arizona. In the past two weeks, the 49ers are plus-4, including a pair of fumble recoveries against the Jaguars.
“We sat here after the Arizona game — bear in the building type of stuff — everyone is trying to solve these problems and we literally said ‘We’ve got to stop turning the ball over, we’ve got to get a couple turnovers on defense or special teams,’ and that’s all we’ve done,” tight end George Kittle said.
That turnover turnaround helped the 49ers soundly beat the Rams on national television and opened some eyes in the process. Doing it again to the Jaguars instead of falling into the “short week/long travel/early start time” trap six days later was exactly the kind of thing a team with legitimate playoff aspirations would do.
“I think it’s coming together at the right time,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “We’re getting to that back half of the season and we’re getting hot. I think that’s just who we are. I think all along we’ve been trying to find that identity, trying to find ourselves and it’s starting to show through.”
The real test of the Niners’ potential postseason hopes will come over the next seven weeks. The first, next week against the Minnesota Vikings, carries double importance. If the playoffs started today, the Niners would be out, but a home win against Minnesota would allow the Niners to leap over the Vikings and give them a meaningful victory for potential tiebreakers down the line. San Francisco follows with games against teams on the further fringes of the NFC playoff picture after that, facing the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 5 and Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 19.
While all of that might be looking ahead a bit too far, the Niners have identified and, at least for now, corrected the issues that had them wobbling to a 3-5 start.
“After that Arizona game, it was pretty low,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We were all embarrassed how we looked and when we watched the tape, we saw a lot of stuff that we felt we could fix. It wasn’t as discouraging as it felt during that game. I was happy with the guys that instead of getting discouraged, they watched the tape and saw the stuff that we could improve on. It’s a credit to the guys and the coaches that they didn’t get down when it was easy to get down. They just kept focusing on trying to get better and practicing and trying to detail stuff up and I think we’ve done a better job of that these past two weeks.”
Making a run to the postseason will be dependent on whether the 49ers of the past two weeks continue to show up.
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