SANTA CLARA – Nick Bosa was a mere rookie when he first enjoyed the thrill of clinching a playoff berth, sealed by Dre Greenlaw’s dramatic goal-line tackle at Seattle in the 2019 regular-season finale.
That epic win clinched the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. Sunday, the 49ers returned to that top spot, which offers an even better inside track to the franchise’s elusive sixth Super Bowl win.
“The way it happened last time was insane. But this is pretty crazy, too,” Bosa said of the No. 1 seed. “To clinch it before the season is over is huge.”
The 49ers (12-4) do not need to deploy injured players, such as Christian McCaffrey with his mild calf strain, when they host the Los Angeles Rams (9-7) before taking off next weekend’s wild-card round of the playoffs.
Unlike in 2019, the NFL playoffs now only afford a bye in the wild-card round to each conference’s No. 1 seed. Coach Kyle Shanahan acknowledges the competitive advantage that comes with avoiding the first round.
“Every game in the NFL is so hard,” Shanahan said Monday. “To be at home is a big deal, but if you win the first one, then you’re one win away from the big one.”
That is what his players echoed in their locker room at FedEx Field on Sunday after they beat the Commanders 27-10, then, minutes later, secured the No. 1 seed once the Eagles lost to Arizona.
“It’s just like them giving you a win,” left tackle Trent Williams said of the wild-card bye. “When other teams got to win three to get to the big bowl, we only gotta win two.”
This is the fourth year with a 14-team playoff field, and with only the conference leaders getting the wild-card bye. Two years ago, the 49ers were a No. 6 seed when they went into Lambeau Field and claimed a 13-10 upset of the top-seeded Packers, who came out flat after their wild-card bye.
Getting extra rest, and not just avoiding an extra game, is why the 49ers view the No. 1 seed as critical.
“This team needed it now, just because we needed extra time to get everyone healthy,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “The last couple of weeks, that injury report was starting to get longer and longer.”
It’s not just the thin spots – offensive line, defensive tackle, safety – that will benefit from at least next week’s bye. Bosa, when asked if he’s looking forward to a break, said: “Oh yeah. Ohhhh yeah.”
Shanahan said he hasn’t decided how many other starters beyond McCaffrey, Arik Armstead (foot) and Ambry Thomas (hand) might sit out Sunday’s game against the Rams.
The 49ers are rich with veterans who have playoff experiences – this is their fourth trip in five years – so it’s not as if they need to stay in that urgent mindset in a meaningless Week 18 game.
They used their Week 9 bye to shake off a three-game losing streak, as well as “clear our minds, understand what our goal was and have that chip on our shoulder again,” quarterback Brock Purdy said. “We have a game this week so we have to focus on the Rams first. But to have a week of recovery and getting our minds right for the playoffs is huge.”
The 49ers are 4-0 in playoff games at Levi’s Stadium. As the No. 1 seed, they won two en route to the 2019 season’s Super Bowl heartbreak, and, last year as the No. 2 seed, they won twice before falling to the No. 1 Eagles, who went on to lose the Super Bowl to the No. 1 Chiefs.
Here is how the 49ers have fared as either the No. 1 seed or with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs:
1981: Super Bowl win (vs. Bengals)
1984: Super Bowl win (vs. Dolphins)
1987: NFC divisional round loss (vs. Vikings)
1989: Super Bowl win (vs. Broncos)
1990: NFC Championship Game loss (vs. Giants)
1992: NFC Championship Game loss (vs. Cowboys)
1994: Super Bowl win (vs. Chargers)
1997: NFC Championship Game loss (vs. Packers)
2019: Super Bowl loss (vs. Chiefs)
“We just have to win two games to go to the Super Bowl,” cornerback Charvarius Ward said. “It’s better than having to win three games to go to the Super Bowl. I think it’s major.”
Inside the home locker room at FedEx Field, meanwhile, Commanders wide receiver and Bosa’s former Ohio State teammate Terry McLaurin marveled at the 49ers’ makeup, staff and talent, comparing the team to his and Bosa’s star-studded 2018 Ohio State team.
“You see why they have the success that they do,” McLaurin continued. “When you’re going against teams like that … you gotta make the most of every opportunity. You can’t turn over the ball. You gotta extend drives and score in the red zone. I think top to bottom they have All-Pro players at every level. You gotta give them credit for building that team and for the players going out there and executing. Hopefully I can be a part of something like that.”
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