Three-game stretch could define 49ers' playoff destiny

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 21, 2023

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In a league where it's practically forbidden for players or coaches to speak about games beyond the next one on the schedule, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle is usually unafraid to deviate from cliches.

On Sunday, after his team had dispatched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers27-14, Kittle was asked how important the Niners' next three games -- at Seattle, at Philadelphia and vs. Seattle -- would be in shaping San Francisco's NFC West division and postseason hopes.

Kittle didn't take the bait this time, offering the standard-issue answer focused on Thanksgiving night in Seattle (8:20 p.m. ET, Lumen Field, NBC).

"Very excited about Thursday Night Football against the Seattle Seahawks," Kittle said. "It's going to be an exciting game and we have to go up there and get a win."

Kittle's response came with a knowing smile because even though he can't say it, he knows that the next three games on San Francisco's schedule carry more weight than the others. Not only because they are the next three, but because they will go a long way in determining the Niners' path back to the Super Bowl.

And Kittle is far from alone in that knowledge. He shares a locker room with many players who have played in at least one NFC Championship Game and know the importance of trying to nail down a division crown, the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.

All of that is on the table for the 7-3 Niners, which is why they offered hints of how closely they pay attention to the NFC playoff picture.

In the locker room after Sunday's win, defensive end Nick Bosa acknowledged that he keeps tabs on the Eagles' schedule, noting who, when and where they play. Kittle, who wouldn't talk about anything beyond the Seahawks, gave a shoutout to the Los Angeles Rams for beating Seattle on Sunday and boosting the Niners back into sole possession of first place in the division.

"We just have to win, keep winning and hopefully everything takes care of itself because that bye week is pretty huge," Bosa said. "November is when s--- really starts."

Indeed, there are many key Niners who know the importance of playing well this time of year. In 2019, many outside observers still questioned San Francisco despite its 8-0 start. That team embarked on a late November/early December slate against the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints.

At the time, each team in that trio had a winning percentage above .800, making it the toughest three-game stretch that late in the season in NFL history. The Niners walloped the Packers, narrowly fell at Baltimore and beat the Saints in a road thriller, stamping themselves as bona fide Super Bowl contenders.

The past two seasons have provided a different test, as the Niners found themselves digging out of holes rather than validating dominance.

They've passed those tests in impressive fashion. Since 2021, the Niners are 18-3 in November, December and January regular season games. That's why nobody was hitting the panic button when the 49ers lost three in a row last month.

"We can't achieve our goals or win the Super Bowl in October," defensive tackle Arik Armstead said. "We want to be playing our best football in November, December and January."

An argument could be made that the Niners were playing their best football in September, when they surged to a 5-0 start and looked ready to roll through the regular season. October offered that wakeup call and showed San Francisco that the warts it was able to cover up in the first five weeks couldn't be hidden forever.

That explains why the Niners aren't crowing about getting the ship righted with convincing wins against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay the past two weeks. Coach Kyle Shanahan was quick to shoot down the notion that his team is playing its best right now.

The Niners still have plenty to clean up. They've committed 14 enforced penalties for 156 yards over the past two weeks, including six of the 10-plus-yard variety. The defense has been much improved but is still showing the occasional leak against the run or giving up a big play in the passing game. And an offense that has otherwise been excellent has struggled to finish drives with touchdowns. Since Week 7, the 49ers are scoring touchdowns on 42% of their red zone trips, which ranks 26th in the NFL.

"It's just one of those things we need to be better at," Kittle said. "When you're playing really high-powered offenses and stuff like that, you have to score touchdowns. You just have to ... And we'll just continually keep knocking on the door before we can just kick it in."

If the Niners can iron out those issues, it would position them to come through this three-game stretch in an ideal spot. There's even a scenario in which they could clinch the NFC West by that second Seattle game if the Niners win the next three and Seattle loses its next three (the Seahawks play at the Dallas Cowboys between meetings with San Francisco).

As for the No. 1 seed, the Eagles are in the driver's seat but face a daunting schedule that comes with games against Buffalo and the Niners at home followed by road trips to Dallas and Seattle. It's also possible that the Niners could jump them in the NFC standings (though the 8-2 Detroit Lions also stand in the way of the No. 1 seed) by taking care of business the next three games.

Of course, none of that will matter if the Niners go through another lull that leads to a loss or multiple losses against the Seahawks and Eagles. Their hope is that lessons learned from their three-game losing streak will prevent another skid.

"We definitely got a rude awakening, and luckily it came in the middle of the season, as opposed to some of those must-win games down the stretch and then working into the playoffs," left tackle Trent Williams said. "I think we got our slice of humble pie, and that's nothing taken away from any of those teams. They went out and they beat us fair and square, but this game has a bunch of ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and we went through a down period. Now we're trying to get back up and playing our standard."

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