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49ers’ 5 keys to beating Commanders with playoffs on horizon

SANTA CLARA — George Kittle’s Christmas wish? He doesn’t want his 49ers teammates to simply sit around and wait for their gifts.

“I hope no one is thinking, ‘We’re coasting. We’re a three-seed, guaranteed,” Kittle said of the 49ers’ mindset, with three games to go until the playoffs.

The 49ers, you see, are not locked into the NFC’s No. 3 seed. They can do no worse than that with their 10-4, NFC West-winning record. But they can do better, if they keep winning and with losses by the Philadelphia Eagles (13-1) and Minnesota Vikings (11-3).

“There’s no, ‘Take a breath, take a breather. There’s none of that,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. “There’s no time to relax. It’s actually a time to pick it up for everybody, for us.”

Business picks back up Saturday when the playoff-contending Washington Commanders (7-6-1) visit Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers then visit the Las Vegas Raiders on Jan. 1 before a regular-season finale at home against the Arizona Cardinals.

Then, barring an Eagles’ three-game faceplant, the 49ers will host a wild-card game, and, if they remain in the No. 3 slot, they’d face the No. 6 seed, which currently are the New York Giants, who are only a win ahead of the Commanders.

If that’s peering too far into the future, then 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan can counter by reflecting on the NFL’s past twists of fate when teams coasted into the playoffs. His father, Mike, was coach of the top-seeded Denver Broncos in 1996, when they lost 2-of-3 heading into the playoffs, and, after a wild-card bye, got upset by the 2-year-old Jacksonville Jaguars. (The Broncos avenged that exit with back-to-back wins in the Super Bowl.)

“(Resting players) is one of the biggest mistakes people make just watching it over the years,” Shanahan said. “I would understand if you were getting ready for a seven-game series, I don’t think football is like that. It’s three and a half hours. It’s one shot.”

Here are five ways to win Saturday’s shot at victory:

5. BEWARE OF DEEP SHOTS

Taylor Heinicke might be on a short leash, presuming he indeed starts ahead of season-opening starter Carson Wentz, who’s recovered from a fractured finger and owns a 3-0 record against the 49ers.

If you’re Heinicke, you’d identify where the 49ers defense might be most vulnerable, and that would be the deep ball via coverage breakdowns, all due respect to recently anointed Pro Bowl safety Talanoa Hufanga.

Terry McLaurin’s third straight 1,000-yard season just got him his first Pro Bowl berth. Also on the 49ers’ radar are Curtis Samuel and rookie Jahan Dotson, the latter of whom has six touchdowns on just 23 receptions. The 49ers have allowed 13 touchdown catches in 14 games.

Ryans referred to Heinicke as a game manager, with a caveat: “You’ve seen him take a few more shots down field, so I would anticipate them trying that on us. … They’re a really talented group of guys, so Heinicke can definitely push it down field and get the ball to those guys.”

4. PLAY CLEANER

The 49ers came away from Thursday’s rare win in Seattle with championship hats and T-shirts … and enough bad film to keep them humble.

“Honestly, our offense wasn’t pretty against Seattle,” Kittle said of the 21-13 win, in which he scored twice. “We had some awesome plays but we had a ton of penalties (seven for 60 yards), we hurt ourselves, and we weren’t fantastic on third downs (6-of-13).

“This Commanders team has a fantastic defense,” Kittle added “I want to prove this 49ers offense is not just big flashy plays, but that we’re consistent and hopefully we get a couple of 15-play drives and we grind.”

Last game’s touchdown drives: nine plays, two plays, two plays. Defensively, the 49ers did not yield a Seahawks touchdown until the final few minutes. Remember that four-game stretch the 49ers did not allow a point after halftime. Since then, they’ve yielded seven, seven and 10 points, so it’s still quite impressive. Maybe.

“If we want to be a great team and move on, we have to play better defense and guys got that message,” Ryans said.

“We’re hard on ourselves,” Nick Bosa said, “which is why we continue to ascend.”

3. McCAFFREY-RIVERA REUNION

Christian McCaffrey has 1,550 yards from scrimmage this season, including 534 rushing and 346 receiving since the 49ers acquired him from the Carolina Panthers. Yet he got beat out for the NFC’s three Pro Bowl spots by running backs Saquon Barkley (1,464 yards), Tony Pollard (1,279 yards) and Miles Sanders (1,182 yards).

Denied the second Pro Bowl berth of his six-year career, McCaffrey could take it out on the Commanders, but they won’t be taken off guard. Their coach is Ron Rivera, who was the Panthers when they took McCaffrey with the No. 8 pick in 2017 out of Stanford.

“He was awesome. I have so much respect for him,” McCaffrey said. “He drafted me, believed in me, gave me an opportunity. I’m always thankful for Coach Rivera.”

Rivera, 60, coached the Panthers from 2011-19 before joining Washington. He grew up in Marina and Seaside before going to Cal and the Chicago Bears (194-92). “(The Commanders) reflect the toughness and mentality of their head coach,” Chris Foerster, the 49ers’ run-game coordinator, said. “He’s a tough-minded guy and they reflect that in how they play. When they come to tackle you, you know you’re getting tackled.”

So, how often should the 49ers expose McCaffrey to such tackles, after his 32-touch, 138-yard show in Seattle? Rookies Jordan Mason and Ty Davis-Price will see more action in the coming weeks, maybe even this game.

2. STOP THE RUN

Washington leads the NFL in time of possession. Four months since being shot in the leg during an armed robbery, Brian Robinson (652 yards) has emerged as a terrific, 228-pound rookie rusher. He’s complemented by Antonio Gibson (536 yards).

Ryans is bracing for the best rushing attack the 49ers have faced since the Atlanta Falcons, who ran 40 times for 168 yards in a Week 6 win.

In the Commanders’ way is the NFL’s No. 1 rush defense, which triggers so much of the 49ers’ success in other aspects. Defensive end Nick Bosa, linebacker Fred Warner and safety Talanoa Hufanga all made the Pro Bowl, and although they’ve enjoyed pass-defense exploits, they also are pivotal to the run defense.

“The biggest thing obviously is they’ve got speed, they can run and that’s one thing that they do very well,” Rivera told the Commanders’ website about the 49ers . “It’s not like they have a huge menu of things they do, but the things they do, they do very, very well.”

1. FRONTLINE WARFARE

Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen got selected to his second straight Pro Bowl, and he’ll represent one of the NFL’s stoutest defensive fronts, which also boasts Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and, in a limited role in his season debut, Chase Young, Bosa’s former teammate at Ohio State who’s coming off an anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction.

“It’s not like if he’s out there, you have to change everything, because there’s a lot of people you have to deal with,” Shanahan said. “But hopefully he does the smart thing and waits one more week.”

Washington’s onus will be on stopping McCaffrey and the 49ers’ explosive plays. But when a rookie quarterback is making only his third career start, that makes Brock Purdy an appealing target, until he escapes pressure and protects his sore oblique and ribs.

“It’s nice to be able to use my legs a little bit, get out of the way in certain situations and have a good feel of when the ball needs to get out, rather than just being a statue and trying to go through my reads,” Purdy said.

Protecting Purdy’s blindside, it’s especially worth noting this week, is left tackle Trent Williams, who merrily fled Washington in a 2020 trade. Next to Williams are offensive linemen who would be this season’s surprise success – if not for, you know, the 49ers making the playoffs with three different quarterbacks, the first two of whom got hurt by opposing defensive linemen.

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