Jimmy or Trey? Either way, Niners in a must-win situation against Houston Sunday

If Garoppolo can’t play, rookie quarterback Lance will get the start

By Bruce Macgowan

Special to the Examiner

For the 49ers, their last two regular season games are like the playoffs. They need to win both games to ensure that they will make it to the postseason. If they lose to either the Houston Texans this week or the rival Rams in Los Angeles a week from Sunday, their playoff hopes will probably be gone with the wind.

The biggest story going into this game concerns the 49ers’ quarterback situation. Who will start? Will Jimmy Garoppolo shake off the effects of a torn ligament in his right thumb or will this be the chance for rookie Trey Lance to show what he can do in a pressure situation?

Throughout the week, Coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t sure. And we may not know who will start until Sunday.

Garoppolo doesn’t need surgery but he suffered a grade 3 sprain to his thumb, a ligament was ripped and a small bone in the thumb was chipped. That’s why there were initial reports by two prominent NFL insiders that Garoppolo’s thumb had been fractured. Turns out, that’s not the case.

“He has a chance to play,” Shanahan flatly stated.

“Because he didn’t break the bone, it’s stable. They told me (former NFL quarterback) Drew Brees had one in the last few years and his broke and that’s why he had to get surgery,” Shanahan told 49ers.com. “Jimmy’s isn’t in that spot. It’s stable. That’s why he doesn’t need surgery right now. I think he’s feeling a lot better today than he was a few days ago. That’s why he’s got a chance this week. And with it being that case, I’m hoping it only gets better with more time whether that’s this week or the following week.”

Garoppolo remained confident he could play, saying during a media availability this week, “If it looks good, it looks good. If it looks bad, it looks bad. It’s just kind of one of those things you’ve got to test it out and go through it. But until we do that, it’ll be hard to say. But yeah, we’ll all be on the same page, and we’ll do the right thing for the team.”

Let’s face it. The chances of Lance getting the start instead are very good.

Shanahan tried not to gush about Lance’s work in the two games he played earlier in the season, one of which was a start against the Cardinals.

“There were times he held onto the ball too long but there were times he got rid of it pretty fast. … If he plays, I’m sure it won’t be perfect but he’s been doing a better job in all aspects the more he has practiced. … He’s excited because he’s seen early in the week that he’s got a chance of starting.”

Meanwhile, the 49ers will be playing a Houston team that has been ravaged by the COVID-19 virus, but has still managed to win its last two games while scoring 71 points. In last week’s stunning 41-29 victory over the Chargers, Houston played loose and came up with two critical interceptions against the Chargers’ all-pro second-year quarterback Justin Herbert. But the coronavirus has exacted a heavy toll on the Texans’ roster as they are missing 10 starters and 19 players overall.

A Texans starter who will be sorely missed this week is standout defensive back Justin Reid, who suffered a concussion in the win over the Chargers. Reid is a former Stanford star who has made 53 tackles and with two interceptions this year.

This season, the Texans have gone mostly with another former Stanford star, Davis Mills, as their starting quarterback. But backup Tyrod Taylor has also seen a lot of action. Last week, however, Mills shown brightly as he completed 21 passes for 245 yards and two TD strikes. Mills was a third-round pick, but he’s already shown that he can play at a high level after his performance against the Chargers. And earlier in the season, Mills impressed everyone with his first 300-yard passing game in the NFL in a narrow loss to New England.

Mills will have his favorite target back in the fold after 28-year-old veteran Brandin Cooks missed last week because of COVID protocols. But the durable Cooks, who has rarely been injured in his pro career, will be back and ready to face the 49ers. Cooks has pulled in 80 passes for 945 yards and five TDs and is the Texans’ top offensive threat. With starting running back David Johnson on the COVID list, Rex Burkhead was a terrific fill-in last week as he scampered for a career high 159 yards while scoring a pair of TDs. The Niners’ defense will have to keep a close watch on him.

Houston has had six defensive lineman out because of COVID, so this week they signed 29-year-old journeyman Chris Smith. He has knocked around the NFL, playing for five teams during a six year pro career.

They’ve also had to place their outstanding kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn on COVID protocol. Fairbairn has been almost automatic on field goal attempts as he’s only missed three in 17 tries. He booted a team record 61-yarder through the uprights in an earlier season game against Seattle. Dominik Eberle, another veteran journeyman was signed to replace Fairbairn on Monday.

Kyle Shanahan is like most NFL coaches. He will never downgrade an opponent before a game.

“The Chargers are a very good team and they had everything to play for but they went in against Houston and got beat pretty good. And you watch some of the other games the Texans have played previous to that and I actually think they looked better in some of those games than they did versus the Chargers. They had so many guys down last week but they were playing with heart and they were fortunate enough to make some big plays on offense and got some big turnovers that killed the Chargers,” he said.

But while Shanahan and his team have to figure out how to avoid being upset in Santa Clara Sunday, every coach, player and fan also has to be waiting in suspense for the word on who will start against Houston. Right now it looks as if rookie Trey Lance will be the man, but it could be a few hours before kickoff before it’s a certainty.

Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner. He has covered Bay Area sports for over 30 years.

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