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49ers' best chance at playoffs is passing Rams in NFC West

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The 49ers enter Week 12 in last place in the NFC West.

They are holding onto slim playoff hopes with six games remaining in the season.

With little room for error, the 49ers simply cannot afford to lose Sunday at the Los Angeles Rams. This is, truly, the first of what figures to be a string of must-win games.

Or, frankly, it could signal the 49ers’ last meaningful game of the season.

If the 49ers lose to the Rams and fall further behind in the NFC playoff picture, all the meaning shifts from this postseason to the 2021 NFL Draft.

The 49ers (4-6) are currently 11th in the NFC.

Seven teams are currently scheduled to make the playoffs, though an eighth could be added if meaningful games are lost due to COVID-19. Coach Kyle Shanahan said he is not giving up hope.

“We have six games left,” he said. “We are not out of the playoffs, yet.

“I've been on a team that was three and six going into a bye week and ended up winning their division. I think we have guys on this team capable of finishing this the right way.”


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In 2012, Shanahan was Washington’s offensive coordinator on the staff of his dad, head coach Mike Shanahan. After stumbling to a 3-6 opening, Washington finished strong with seven consecutive regular-season victories to win the NFC East.

The hill is much too steep for the 49ers to win the division. But they can keep their season alive with a conclusion to the season far less dramatic.

All the 49ers have to do is work their way out of last place in the division. But for the defending conference champions, that will be a lot more difficult than it sounds.

Each conference will have three wild-card teams. It is a near-certainty both New Orleans (8-2) and Tampa Bay (7-3) will end up in the playoffs -- one as NFC South champs and the other as a wild-card team.

Therefore, the last-place team in the NFC West will be sent home after Week 17.

The 49ers remain mathematically alive. Realistically, a back-to-back trip to the playoffs appears highly unlikely.

The most logical way for the 49ers to get out of fourth place is to overtake the Rams, whom they have already beaten once this season for their only intra-division victory.

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First, the Rams must stumble along the way. And their game Monday night against the Buccaneers would be a good start for the 49ers to inch back into contention.

Then, the 49ers could shave off another game and pull to within one game of third place if they can somehow replicate their 24-16 victory over the Rams from back in Week 6. With a series sweep over the Rams, the 49ers would own the division tie-breaker.

But, first things first, the game Sunday at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum is, indeed, a must-win game.