Win or go home. It’s that simple after the 49ers 34-24 loss to Buffalo.
Don’t buy it? Check with the coach.
“We’ve got four more games . . . and we’ve got to win all of them,” said Kyle Shanahan.
You know the calculation. The Niners were 5-6 coming into Monday night’s nationally televised game. Ten wins is a perfectly acceptable total for an invitation to the playoffs. To get to 10-6, San Francisco had to beat Buffalo and win the next four.
However, there were some optimists who said the team could lose one of the last five and still make the postseason.
They just lost that game.
Nine wins might get you in, but fall below that and it’s over. There’s not, as Trent Williams said, “a lot of wiggle room.”
Which means there are two ways to look at the loss to the Bills. Neither is very encouraging, but one is slightly better than the other.
The first, is about Buffalo. That’s a playoff team. The 9-3 Bills scored four touchdowns and it appeared they could have scored four more if they had the time. Postgame pundit Donte Whitner noted that at one point Buffalo scored on “six consecutive drives.” They dominated.
And it was a splashy coming-out party for Josh Allen. We’ve heard bulletins from Buffalo that the big guy was playing well, but this was a national showcase. His sizzling spirals hit receiver in the numbers and he was so effortlessly in control he took the time to point out a holding call to an official while scrambling away from a pass rush.
“He just had a game,” Fred Warner said. “We knew about the arm talent and escapability, and he showed that off today.”
So, the glass half full guy says, what are you going to do? That’s a really good team, and they, and their QB, were on fire.
The second take isn’t so rosy.
This is the standard for a playoff team. Remember, Buffalo doesn’t even have the best record in its division. Pittsburgh and Kansas City are 11-1. Cleveland ties the Bills at 9-3.
If you want to play with the big boys, that’s the bar you have to reach. There were several references to the concept of “matching” the Bills. Shanahan even said he hoped the game was turning into a “game similar to how New Orleans was last year.”
That 48-46 win in New Orleans has become part of recent 49ers’ lore. Jimmie Garoppolo threw for over 340 yards and four touchdowns and Drew Brees threw five TDs. It was a “we believe” game, convincing a lot of people, probably including some in the locker room, that they belonged with the best in the NFL. It helped propel them to the Super Bowl.
But that was then and this is now. It is unfortunate that we tend to brush aside the absolutely Biblical run of bad luck the 49ers have endured. Injuries, illness, bad breaks and a forced quarantine in Arizona have definitely had an effect. Without George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and yes, Garoppolo, this team is not good enough.
It isn’t that I doubt they can win. They can. But it isn’t going to be easy.
Shanahan talked about how “our defense has been, I think, carrying us all year.” And that’s fine, but the injury epidemic has suddenly hit the defensive backfield. Allen and the Bills chewed them up.
That puts the onus back on the offense and the idea of matching drives. The Nick Mullens-led offense couldn’t do it. They were 6-12 on third and fourth down conversions, plays that would have kept drives alive.
“We just had a few things that didn’t keep us on the field,” Shanahan said, “and when you do that versus an offense and a quarterback who’s playing the way they are, you don’t get it back for a while.”
At this point we’re supposed to pick apart Mullens’ game, explaining the nuances of his play. But you know what? I think he’s doing the best he can. Given a little time in the pocket, he hit Brandon Aiyuk with a long touchdown throw that traveled half the length of the field.
But there was also that bizarre sequence in the fourth quarter when, at “the one inch line,” in Shanahan’s words, Mullens got antsy while attempting a silent snap and essentially false-started himself. That moved the ball back five critical yards and on the next play he threw an end zone interception. On national television.
That has to be maddening. And there must be some pressure, however subtle, for Garoppolo to announce that his ankle is better, and he’s ready to give it a go. General manager John Lynch said in a radio interview that Garoppolo and Kittle had some terrific recent workouts. Was that a nudge? After all, every game now is basically a playoff game. Maybe someone will say, let’s put them out there and see if we can win this.
That would be a mistake if Garoppolo is not healthy. First, it would put him in the position of playing hurt. He’s already every rabid fan’s favorite piñata. If he limps out there and doesn’t play well, the noise will be deafening.
But also, it isn’t a good idea, long range, for the team. There’s too much smoke not to think there is some fire about moving on from Jimmie G. If that’s true, you better take a long hard look at what you’ve got before you cut the rope. And you better make sure you have something better lined up.
To do that you’re going to have to see Garopollo at his best. That’s the test. He won’t have a bad ankle forever. If you are going to send him out there, it is only fair to him, and to you, to do it when he’s healthy.
At this point I’d stick with the plan and say Garopollo and Kittle might be able to play in the last two games.
Until then, you’ve got your hands full.