Yes, there was a way the Niners could have lost that game and still claimed the NFC West division — and even the No. 1 seed in the playoffs — with a Week 17 win and some help. But the Niners had no intention of looking past the Rams to a potential titanic division clash against the Seattle Seahawks in the season finale.
“It was very important,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I thought we had to win this game no matter what. … Now, winning this, you don’t have to worry about anything. Now we’ve got one game here left in our season before the playoffs. Got eight days to get ready for it and we’re pumped about that.”
Indeed, the 49ers found a way to sneak past the Rams 34-31. The victory moved them to 12-3 and set up the type of high-stakes game that most players and coaches dream about, at least the regular-season version of it.
The scenario is this: the 49ers can clinch the NFC West, a first-round bye, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win Sunday. As if all of that wasn’t enough, they must go to Seattle. CenturyLink Field has been a house of horrors in recent years, as the Niners have lost seven straight and nine of their past 10 games there.
The gravity of it all wasn’t lost on the Niners, even in the moments after Saturday’s emotional win.
“We love playing in Seattle,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “It’s a big deal for us. We get this first-round bye, guys can rest up and then also we haven’t beat Seattle in Seattle in a while. So, it’s going to mean a lot to the organization to go up there and try to get this dub. We’re all focused on it, and I can’t wait to get up there.”
While the division crown and top seed are nice carrots to chase, the biggest thing for these Niners might be landing the first-round bye. Over the past month and a half, injuries have mounted, as the 49ers have lost key starters like linebacker Kwon Alexander, defensive tackle D.J. Jones and center Weston Richburg, — plus helpful depth like defensive ends Ronald Blair III and Damontre’ Moore — for the rest of the season.
That doesn’t include shorter-term issues for guys like pass-rusher Dee Ford and safety Jaquiski Tartt, or the many 49ers playing through bumps and bruises and/or the fatigue that goes with playing so many snaps.
The toll of those injuries has had a trickle-down effect in which the defense has lost its dominant form and the offense has had to pick up the slack. A team that had the earliest bye possible (Week 4) and has only had a little extra time off after a Week 9 Thursday night game since could use some rest and relaxation to help refill a gas tank that has been hovering perilously close to “E.”
Also, the past six Super Bowl winners have had first-round byes.
“You would always love the first-round bye, without a doubt,” Shanahan said. “You always would like two games instead of three to get to the big one and you’d always like to rest your guys if you could. But, everyone has done it every way possible, so you never know which way is going to be the best way until the season is over, then you can have hindsight. I think that’s what everyone goes for, but if that doesn’t happen we’ll be excited with whatever situation we’re in.”
If the Niners can’t beat the Seahawks, who won the first meeting 27-24 in overtime Nov. 11, they would drop to the No. 5 seed and have to go on the road to face the NFC East champion on wild-card weekend. It would mean an extra game and, potentially, a whole lot more traveling in a season in which they’ve already racked up the miles.
Which is why, even though Sunday’s showdown in Seattle isn’t technically a playoff game, it might as well be.
“I think it’s everything,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “That is what you play football for. These are the kind of games that you dream about when you are a kid. We are really looking forward to that, and it would mean a lot to get the W.”