This Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers step on the field for the first time in 2022 to face the Houston Texans.
The 49ers are 8-7 and currently hold the 6th seed in the NFC, meaning if the season ended today they’d be in the playoffs as a wild-card team.
But that doesn’t mean the postseason is locked in for the 49ers — they have to earn their spot in these last two weeks.
While the Texans are a 4-win team and most assuredly one of the worst in the NFL, they’ve shown fight lately. Just one week ago they beat the Los Angeles Chargers 41-29 in a stunning upset nobody expected. If the 49ers don’t play their best football against these Texans, they could be shocked in a similar way.
Hopefully, the 49ers realize the importance of this matchup and bring their A-game. If they can win on Sunday along with a New Orleans Saints loss or tie to the Carolina Panthers, the 49ers clinch a playoff spot.
If not, the 49ers will have to beat the high-flying Los Angeles Rams in Week 18 to extend their season, which is no easy task.
The 49ers should beat the Texans. But they’ve dropped winnable matchups this season before due to mistakes and undisciplined play. Plus, the Niners are also going into this game with uncertainty at the quarterback position, which could make or break their performance.
Let’s examine what needs to happen for the 49ers to come out on top in Sunday’s battle for the playoffs.
Sunday’s X-Factor: The Quarterback Position
This week, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo missed practice due to a thumb injury he sustained vs. the Tennessee Titans. Right now, his official status for Sunday’s game is doubtful.
Now, there’s a slim chance Garoppolo is able to recover from his injury in time to start on Sunday. The more likely scenario? Garoppolo can’t play, and we see rookie QB Trey Lance leading the team.
According to players, coaches, and media, Trey Lance has developed very well behind the scenes throughout the season. He started one game so far due to another Jimmy G injury, which was Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. In that outing he completing 15 of 29 passes for 129 yards and an interception, along with 89 rushing yards.
While Lance’s stats in that Cardinals game didn’t show it, he looked impressive. And by the sound of it, he’s gotten even better since.
Luckily for Trey Lance and the 49ers, the young quarterback doesn’t necessarily need to play amazing to secure the win. This team is stacked with talent on both sides of the ball, so as long as Lance can avoid turnovers and keep the defense guessing with his running ability, his passing stats shouldn’t matter too much.
The Passing Game
The past few weeks, two names have been single-handedly carrying the 49ers on offense. Those names are George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. Kittle had two recent back-to-back games with over 150 receiving yards, and has shown to be a dangerous target regardless of the opponent.
As for receiver Deebo Samuel, he’s having a historic year in which he’s the first NFL player ever to amass more than 1000 recieving yards and 300 rushing yards in the same season.
If one or both members of this 49ers tandem can show up against the Texans, a win is likely.
Also crucial in the receiving game will be Brandon Aiyuk, the second-year wideout who continues to have a weekly impact.
The Rushing Attack
As many receiving threats as they have, expect the 49ers to stick to the ground game heavily on Sunday. Not only is it their preferred style of play, it’s also a way to avoid the Texans’ talented pass defense. They’ve held opposing quarterbacks to an average passer rating of 90.1 this season, which is 13th lowest in the NFL.
Houston also has 16 interceptions on the year, near the top of the league. Texans cornerback Tavierre Thomas was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week last week against the Chargers for 8 tackles and an interception he returned for a touchdown. Cornerback Tremon Smith is another threat in the Houston secondary.
Conversely, the Texans run defense has ranked near the bottom of the league consistently all season. There’s no doubt the 49ers will take advantage of that with designed quarterback runs from Trey Lance, handoffs to Deebo Samuel, and heavy use of their running backs.
Speaking of running backs, the 49ers may have their best one in Elijah Mitchell available on Sunday. He’s been absent with a knee injury since Week 13, but always seems to move the ball well whenever he’s on the field and getting touches. Currently, his official status is listed as questionable.
Even if Mitchell isn’t ready Sunday, the 49ers have Jeff Wilson Jr., the other running back who’s been having lots of success in recent weeks.
The 49ers defense has been playing very well lately, with edge rusher Nick Bosa and the D-Line leading the charge. While the secondary continues to be a major weakness, as long as the D-line can pressure the quarterback, that vulnerability is well hidden.
On Sunday vs. the Texans their target is rookie QB Davis Mills, who’s struggled with accuracy and interceptions this season. Bosa and the rest of the Niners pass rush will be key in forcing Mills to make game-changing mistakes.
On the linebacker side of things, the 49ers will be missing Azeez Al-Shaair, who’s been having an impressive year. They’ll need a strong performance from Fred Warner to overcome that absence.
The Texans offense ranks 30th in points scored, so the 49ers should have success keeping the lead in this game.
The special teams unit is one of the 49ers’ biggest weaknesses, and they’ve made crucial mistakes seemingly every game. Whether it’s a missed field goal, bad punt, or fumbled kick return, this group keeps finding ways to set the team back.
If they can clean up the mistakes, this inferior Houston Texans team shouldn’t stand a chance. If not, the 49ers will spend another week trying to get out of a hole they dug themselves.
On Sunday, the 49ers have an opportunity to clinch the playoffs — or at the very least improve their chances. Luckily, they get to face a team that’s clearly worse than them.
But with the 49ers coming in with a rookie QB and key injuries, there’s plenty that can go wrong. That means the team will have to play a solid, mistake-free game to take home the win.
No doubt Niners fans and players alike will be taking note of the Saints-Panthers result, as well. Remember that a Saints loss along with a 49ers win means San Francisco is guaranteed a playoff spot.
Either way, tune in this Sunday for an exciting day of Niners football.
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