Are the Niners back in the playoff chase?

San Francisco desperately needed past two wins to keep hopes alive

By Bruce Macgowan

Special to The Examiner

Look up the word mediocre and here’s what you’ll find: “Only of moderate quality. Not very good.”

If you look at the 49ers’ 5-5 record this season, you might say mediocre is a fair assessment.

But look closer, especially these last two weeks, and it’s hard to say this team is “of moderate quality.” First, they pummeled the rival Rams in a stunning, one-sided win. Then, this past Sunday, the trend continued as they dominated lowly Jacksonville 30-10 in a game that had many of the Jaguars’ fans fleeing for the exits well before the final gun sounded.

A sense of urgency certainly has to be an intangible factor these last two weeks. The 49ers desperately needed these wins to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Against Jacksonville, there was little doubt what Head Coach Kyle Shanahan wanted his team to do. Just pound the ball on the ground, as they did so successfully against the Rams, and mix in some passing and a few unconventional plays. If executed properly, it’s the formula for a positive outcome.

Going up against a very respectable Jacksonville defense, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo guided the offense with great efficiency, using up almost 13 minutes of the first quarter on one drive. The stunning grouping of 20 plays ended up with a score, but more importantly, it wore down the Jaguars defense early on and set the tone.

Jacksonville coach Urban Meyer was hoping his defense unit would duplicate the efforts of a few weeks back when they put the clamps on the Buffalo Bills in a surprising 9-6 upset. But it wasn’t to be.

“This one felt different than last week,” said Garoppolo after the game. “Last week it was just run it down their throats. This week it was kind of a grinder type of thing.”

The fact that the Niners had a short week to prepare for a cross country trip to Florida didn’t seem to have any negative effect on the team. And to have two terrific back-to-back performances, coming on the heels of the most embarrassing loss of the year against the Cardinals, was particularly heartening.

“It was definitely talked about. Getting up in the morning earlier than you’re used to, getting your mind going and your body. It was tough but I think the guys responded well. There was good energy in the locker room this morning. That’s always a good sign….we’re going in the right direction,”Garoppolo said.

The direction the Niners’ offense has been headed these last two weeks also has been eye opening. Garoppolo clicked on 16 of 22 passing attempts and fired two more TD strikes, one to George Kittle and one to Brandon Aiyuk, who found space between Jaguar defenders to victimize them for seven catches. These last two games, Aiyuk had stepped up his play and that has made a big difference.

Meanwhile, the Niners’ defense had plenty of energy in reserve thanks to long, clock-eating drives by the offense. They poured in on rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence, sacking him three times while holding Jacksonville to just 54 yards on the ground.

Star lineman Nick Bosa was asked about being on the field for only a little over two minutes of the first quarter.

“It was a little weird. We had three plays in the first quarter… we wanted to be part of this game but one of our defensive coaches said: ‘This is how you win.’”

Winning against next week’s opponent will be much more challenging because like the 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings are coming off an emotionally charged win over the rival Packers on a last-second field goal. And just as the 49ers have done, Minnesota has surged back into the playoff picture, winning two close games in a row over the Chargers on the road and then at home against Green Bay.

The Niners will be back in Santa Clara for this one and it could be a very entertaining game; two teams seemingly on the rise with two of the game’s most creative coaches facing each other. And you can be assured that Vikings’ coach Mike Zimmer and Shanahan will use some unconventional and perhaps even trick plays to keep the fans interested and the results more unpredictable.

The 49ers seem to be headed in the right direction.

Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.

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