49ers gain traction in NFC playoff race with less turnovers


San Francisco wide receiver Deebo Samuel scores a 25-yard touchdown during a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.


The 49ers did something Sunday in Jacksonville they haven’t done all season.

They put together strong performances in back to back games, throttling the struggling Jaguars 30-10 less than a week after their triumphant victory over the Rams on Monday night. It marks the 49ers’ first winning streak since the first two weeks of the season, when they battled to hang on for victories against the sub-.500 Lions and Eagles in mediocre performances. Those foreshadowed the team’s oncoming struggles, as San Francisco lost five of six games.

The Jaguars, who fell to 2-8 Sunday, played like one of the worst teams in the NFL. But the more important point from the 49ers’ view: they came out focused, with energy, and didn’t let the home team gather steam after a cross-country trip on a short week. They have a .500 record to show for it for the first time since September, improving to 5-5.

Tight end George Kittle made an interesting point to reporters after the game, noting the team’s struggles had been over-analyzed and dissected during its downturn from weeks 3 to 9. It took a few simple fixes to get back on the winning track, particularly after the low-point loss against Arizona and backup quarterback Colt McCoy earlier this month.

“We’re not turning the ball over,” Kittle said. “We sat here after the Arizona game, bear-in-the-building type of stuff, everyone trying to solve all the problems, and we literally said, ‘We got to stop turning the ball over, we need to get a couple turnovers on defense or special teams,’ and that’s all we’ve done the last two weeks.”

The 49ers didn’t turn the ball against the Rams or Sunday in Jacksonville. And they converted 14 of 26 tries on third down (54%) after going 14 of 56 (25 percent) their previous five games. They also took the ball away twice against the Rams, both leading to touchdowns, and recovered a fumble caused by Josh Norman on Sunday leading to the team’s first trip to the end zone.

Said Jimmy Garoppolo: “I think these past 14 days have, I don’t want to say changed our team, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction now, I’ll say. We just got to keep going.”

For head coach Kyle Shanahan, who modeled this year’s club after the 2019 Super Bowl team, that’s the most important thing. That team took care of business against bad teams all season. The issue with this year’s squad, which returns a lot of the same players, is that it lost games it should have won, like against the Colts and Cardinals on its home field.

49ers on a roll

Now the 49ers are in the midst of their best run of the year, having out scored their last two opponents, 61-20, while getting strong performances from both sides of the ball. The calls for Shanahan to bench Garoppolo in favor of Trey Lance, who played Sunday in garbage time, have subsided.

“After that Arizona game, it was pretty low because we were real embarrassed in how we looked,” Shanahan said. “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. And I was happy with the guys that, instead of getting discouraged, they kept it real and just watched the tape and saw the stuff that we could improve on.”

Sunday’s game never felt close.

San Francisco’s first drive lasted 20 plays and 13:05 of game time, the longest series for any team since 2000, according to ESPN, and resulted in a field goal. After George Kittle scored a touchdown to make the lead 27-3 in the third quarter, the 49ers had run 50 plays to 18 for the Jaguars, outgaining the home team 292-83 and holding the advantage in first downs, 22-4. It was the most 2019-like performance of the year, following Monday’s win that required the same formula.

The 49ers got there with another rushing touchdown for receiver Deebo Samuel (one catch, 15 yards and eight rushes for 79 yards), who was also the team’s most dynamic running back, with Elijah Mitchell sidelined by a finger injury that required surgery last week. Fellow wideout Brandon Aiyuk caught all seven targets, including a 6-yard score in the second quarter for a season-high 85 yards.

“We’re putting our best players in position to make plays and they’re taking advantage of those opportunities and they’re making those plays,” Kittle said. “Deebo’s looking great, Aiyuk looked great today, I thought our tight ends blocked our tails off, and our O-line looked great. And I think Jimmy’s still slicing and dicing. So I think our offense is just clicking right now. And Kyle’s calling the right plays.”

It was a fourth-straight strong showing for Garoppolo, who completed 16 of 22 for 176 yards with a pair of touchdown passes, giving him a 113.2 passer rating over the last four games. He had six touchdowns passes and just one turnover over that span. The previous three games, Garoppolo threw four interceptions, lost two fumbles and had just four touchdown throws.

Garoppolo’s uptick in play has come with his teammates taking care of their own responsibilities.

“I think it’s just guys are winning one on one matchups,” Garoppolo said. “When you can do that consistently like we are — and we got good players on this team, obviously, I think that goes without saying — but when you can all 11 across the board be winning one-on-one match ups, it kind of sets the tone for everything. People have been playing to man to man against us, it’s tough. Up front, our O-line, they’re doing as good a job as I’ve ever seen.”

49ers face key Vikings showdown

Next week’s game against Minnesota is shaping up to be an important one in the standings. The Vikings on Sunday beat the Packers with a late field to improve to 5-5, while the Saints, who entered the day in the No. 6 seed spot in the NFC playoff standings, got blown out in Philadelphia.

That means San Francisco, New Orleans and Minnesota are in a three-way tie at 5-5 for the last two spots in the wild card race with seven weeks left. The Vikings and Saints currently hold the Nos. 6 and 7 spots because of tiebreakers, but the 49ers would get a big boost if they can take care of Minnesota next week at home to extend the winning streak to three, their longest of the season.

The same will be true each week. The last game will mean little if the team can’t follow it up with another strong performance.

“We knew how much our backs are against the wall before that Rams game,” Shanahan said. “And we also know that meant nothing if we couldn’t win today.”

This story was reported remotely as the Bee was not on hand for the game.

This story was originally published November 21, 2021 3:04 PM.

Chris Biderman has covered the 49ers since 2013 and began covering the team for The Sacramento Bee in August 2018. He previously spent time with the Associated Press and USA TODAY Sports Media Group. A Santa Rosa native, he graduated with a degree in journalism from The Ohio State University.

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