Niners face Seahawks in key game with postseason implications

The stretch drive is here and the Niners look ready

By Bruce Macgowan

Special to The Examiner

The 49ers are playing their best football at the right time. With only six games remaining, the team has a 6-5 record, good enough to stand only one game back of the Rams who currently own the number two wild card spot in the NFC.

Less than a month ago, San Francisco appeared to be in a freefall after a dreadful looking loss to Arizona. But the last three weeks have seen a much different story unfold. Impressive wins over the Rams, the Jaguars and this past Sunday at home against Minnesota have turned the season around.

Still, the question remains: Will the Niners be able to continue the positive trend and make the playoffs? Four of those games are on the road starting with this Sunday’s clash with Seattle up north.

The Seahawks are a mess. Injuries, particularly to the one that put premier quarterback Russell Wilson on the shelf for a good portion of the season, have ruined things for diehard Seattle fans. The Seahawks managed a paltry 34 yards rushing in a lousy performance against mediocre Washington this past week. They scored just one touchdown. Wilson was continually under siege and had very few opportunities to do what he does best, which is scramble around, take off on a run a or throw a quick pass.

Coach Pete Carroll and the rabid fans of Seattle are not used to this consistently poor play. Safe to say, it’s been a “throw away” season for the Seahawks. This is a good time for the 49ers to play one of their rivals, even with the game being played in Seattle.

The Niners biggest strength these last three games has been their ground attack. Rookie running back Elijah Mitchell was the workhorse in this past week’s win over the Vikings. Many players would have taken two weeks off after having a pin surgically placed in a finger following an injury. But not this youngster.

“He was a stud today,” beamed Head Coach Kyle Shanahan, after Mitchell gashed the Vikings’ defense for 133 yards and a two-yard score that helped ensure a 34-26 win.

Tight end George Kittle who is one of the toughest, hardest working players in the league was so impressed with Mitchell that he was wearing a custom made Elijah Mitchell t-shirt when he went to the podium to talk with reporters following the win.

“He runs downhill. A play blocked for three yards ends up being a seven (yard play), a play blocked for one yard ends up being four. When he gets hit, he always falls forward…. He just runs his tail off. He’s very physical and makes quick decisions.”

When premier running back Raheem Mostert went down with a season ending knee injury in the opening game at Detroit, Shanahan was forced to play the relatively obscure University of Louisiana product and Mitchell has helped save the 49ers’ season. He’s rushed for 100 yards or better four times this year but more importantly, his mostly short four and eight yard bursts have led to long scoring drives that have worn down opposing defenses.

But the 49ers big concerns in the weeks ahead are the availability of one of the game’s most exciting performers, running back/receiver Deebo Samuel, and the durable linebacker Fred Warner, who quarterbacks the defense.

Samuel suffered a groin strain in the win over the Vikings while Warner had to leave the game with a hamstring pull.

Samuel is one of those rare players who can almost singlehandedly win a game. He sometimes lines up in the backfield, sometimes he’s a wide receiver and he can also work out of the slot.

Perhaps best known for his catch and run abilities, Samuel complimented Mitchell’s work against the Vikings by scoring twice on the ground. Deebo will sit out this weekend’s game and might miss the following weekend’s matchup against the Bengals, who after years of being a doormat in the AFC North are suddenly in the playoff mix. Groin muscle injuries, whether serious or minor, can really limit someone such as Samuel, who relies on that explosive breakaway speed to get around corners or maneuver his way through the tight openings between defenders in the middle of the field.

Shanahan will once again have his offense keep the ball on the ground against the Seahawks in an effort to wear out their defense. Seattle’s defense hasn’t been awful this year, but the injuries and poor play on offense doomed their chances early in the season.

Last week, it took awhile for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to get things going, as the Niners weren’t able to run down the Vikings’ throats the way they did in the previous two weeks against the Jaguars and Rams. But it would not be any kind of surprise if the Niners establish ball control early and take command of the game in Seattle by grinding out a long drive, mostly behind the dogged running of Mitchell.

November is usually a month when the playoff challengers step forward and the “pretenders” fade. The stretch drive of the season is almost here. Even with their recent injuries, the Niners are looking to be in pretty good shape.

“We’re all excited to be back in the mix and have this season in our control,” said defensive lineman Nick Bosa, when asked about the remaining six games.

The soft-spoken Bosa has been a terror this year with 11 quarterback sacks, fourth best in the NFL.

“We always knew we were a good team and had to execute better,” he said.

The 49ers have been doing that very well these last three games. Winning in Seattle this week will be no surprise. Winning the following week at Cincinnati will probably be much more of a challenge. As long as the injuries don’t pile up, the 49ers should be in good shape for the final four weeks of the season.

And after that ugly loss to Arizona last month, very few imagined things turning around so dramatically.

Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.