SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Partly in jest, partly at playoff level, Kyle Shanahan brought it up to the (statistical) mind game within the (meaningless) game.
Neither the 49ers nor the Rams cared too much about the outcome of this regular season finale at Levi's Stadium, which ended in a 21-20 Rams win. They're both in the playoffs. They are rivals, but it didn't feel that way on Sunday as both teams sat their starting quarterbacks and many others. The 49ers' emotional disconnect was even greater because they secured the NFC's No. 1 seed last weekend, meaning they get a bye until the opening round of the playoffs. Their top priority: getting through the four quarters without major injuries. Just get through this and wait two weeks for the big things.
So the 49ers were in a bit of limbo on Sunday, but they were still circling a very specific and very vivid goal.
“We just went out of our way to prevent Puka (Nacua) from getting one more yard and one more completion so he had to play the whole game,” Shanahan said with a small smile.
That meant focusing as much attention as possible on Nacua to keep him from breaking NFL rookie records for most catches in a season and most receiving yards for as long as possible. At the start of the game, Nacua only needed 4 receptions and 29 yards. The 49ers barely held him off in the first half, including some serious double coverage in the second quarter as the Rams desperately tried to make it before halftime.
Which forced the Rams to play against Nacua in the third quarter – when he broke both records early by catching consecutive 7- and 6-yard passes.
“Our goal was just to keep him going the whole game,” Shanahan said. “We knew it was going to be tough. We knew he needed one more catch and one more yard (after halftime). …I'm just glad it had to come in the third part. Small victory.”
What the hell was going on here? The 49ers made absolutely no suggestion that the Rams did anything wrong by trying to feed Nacua and then take him out of the game – the 49ers have done this at times with their own players. It's part of playing with and against good players.
No, here Shanahan was all about attacking his opponents on the Rams' coaching staff a little while trying to generate some energy for his team in a game lacking motivation. Looking ahead to the bye week, Shanahan let his players know that there were still things to play for in this game, even if those things were made up.
Of course, Nacua got his record and the 49ers had to walk off the field with a record of 12-5 instead of 13-4, and their nine-game regular season winning streak against the Rams ended. It doesn't matter much anymore. Only the playoffs count. But Sunday's miniature focus was also important because the 49ers wanted it to matter.
Trying to keep Puka Nacua out of history was one of the 49ers' motivations heading into Sunday's regular-season finale. (Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
It was Shanahan who made that mental shift and took his players with him.
“Personally, I try not to really get upset about how it turned out,” Shanahan said of the game’s outcome. “But I also have to stay on top of things and make sure we’re ready for what’s important.”
The 49ers can't push themselves too hard now – they have two tough practices scheduled this week before they know who their opponent will be on January 20th or 21st, and they've just played nine weeks in a row, so I need some blues Patches are healing, including a knee problem that forced Clelin Ferrell out after the first series on Sunday. And they don't want to feel overwhelmed or overloaded when they get to the divisional round.
What was shown on Sunday? That backup quarterback Sam Darnold (16 completions on 26 attempts for 189 yards and a touchdown and 7 rushes for 19 yards and another TD) isn't a bad emergency option for Brock Purdy heading into the playoffs; that they have good depth at running back behind Christian McCaffrey (Elijah Mitchell and Jordan Mason combined for 88 yards on 20 carries); and that kicker Jake Moody is entering the playoffs more than a little shaky (a miss just right on a 38-yard field goal attempt, then a wild miss right on an extra point attempt).
Shanahan said it was never good to see the kicker miss twice, but said it was just a tough day for Moody, who has been good all season. When I asked if the 49ers might add another kicker to the practice squad just to have another option for the playoffs, Shanahan shook his head and said they agreed with Moody.
They are in playoff mode. They are filled with Pro Bowl players. They won away from the number 1 seed. They are the clear favorites to make it through the NFC tournament. Together with the Ravens, they are the favorites to win in February. Yes, the 49ers like these chances and this moment.
“I feel like we're exactly where we want to be, as a No. 1 seed,” said Trent Williams, who played only the first series of the game. “Of course it’s never perfect. We’re going to continue to try to improve with the opportunities we have and try to go out week in and week out whenever we play and try to keep the season alive.”
They'll have Purdy, the NFC's best quarterback this season, and they're 2-0 in playoff games where Purdy was healthy enough to finish. They'll have McCaffrey (who had to sit out this game), Deebo Samuel, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and every other star you know. They have those tough, motivating memories of losing to Purdy in the first quarter of last season's NFC championship game and then backing up Josh Johnson not long after.
You are confident. They are driven. You should be confident. But first they have to overcome this state of limbo. They deserve the time off, but now they have to make the most of it. Are they sharp enough now? The Nacua mini mind games showed me that the 49ers are still pretty sharp.
“Our goal was to reach No. 1; That was our first and most important goal,” Shanahan said. “We did. It was just a little strange last week. But I like how our guys handled it. I loved how our year went. We set out to do this and I was really happy with it the number of guys who got better over the year.
“But as our players said, we still believe that our best footballer is the striker. And it's pretty difficult to generate something if you don't go through these games, but that's why we have to focus so much on these exercises and how we clean things up and make sure no matter what happens, no matter who comes in a few We've been here for weeks, no matter what type of game it is, whether it's a shootout, a field goal game, whatever, we're ready for whatever it takes to win. “
If there are no surprises in the NFC first round, the 49ers will host the winner of the wild card game 4-5: Tampa Bay hosts collapsing Philadelphia. Yes, I think the 49ers wouldn't mind facing any of these teams at all.
But since they're playing the lowest-seeded team that survives the first round, the 49ers could also end up playing the Packers or Rams. In fact, I have more than a sneaking suspicion that the 49ers are almost expecting to play the Rams, who play the Lions in Detroit next weekend.
Who would likely be the toughest matchup in the divisional round? I think it would be the Rams just because Matthew Stafford is a QB who can light up any defense at any time and beat the 49ers in the NFC title game in January 2022, because Aaron Donald is a Hall of Fame defensive player because he runs back Kyren Williams is a rising star and because of receivers Cooper Kupp and – guess who – Puka Nacua.
“Now we’re focused, refocused on the postseason and trying to achieve that ultimate goal,” Williams said. “That’s where we are right now. Do a good job this week, compete a little and just keep sharpening our sword.”
They have two weeks to keep their lead. To continue to push yourself, prepare for difficult moments, and prepare to deliver whatever is needed. The 49ers seem more than ready for this. They had to survive 16 tough games and a 17th meaningless game to get here. And if they got it right, the best is yet to come.
(Photo by Kyle Shanahan: Bob Kupbens / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)