The NFL playoffs don’t start until Jan. 12, but the 49ers know they must have a playoff mentality earlier than that.
After losing their Thursday night matchup with the Tennessee Titans, the 49ers found themselves further away from the postseason being a reality. Instead of controlling its own destiny, San Francisco needed to rely on other dominoes falling in order to keep its NFC wild-card hopes alive.
The first chip to fall in the 49ers' favor was the Miami Dolphins' Monday night victory in New Orleans. That left San Francisco as the NFC's No. 6 seed holding the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Philadelphia Eagles, who also own an 8-7 record.
A wild-card berth would be secured for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and his team with wins on each of the next two weekends. While Shanahan isn't as well read on all the playoff scenarios as he is in Xs and Os, he does know the important facts.
“I don't know the exact numbers,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “The one thing I do know is if we win both of the games that we're in. I know it's going to be hard if we lose any.
“So, not taking it past that, you look at it as if you lose, your season is over, and if you win, it keeps going. And that's, to me, the definition of the playoffs. So, our players are aware of that, and that's why we have to make sure we take care of business.”
Coming away with wins over the Houston Texans this week and Los Angeles Rams next week will not be an easy task. The Texans just steamrolled a heavily favored LA Chargers team, and the Rams could be playing for a first-round playoff bye in the final week of the regular season.
After watching Texans film, Shanahan sees Sunday’s game as a huge challenge for his squad.
“The Chargers are a very good team at all phases, and they had everything to play for,” Shanahan said. “They went in there and got beat pretty good. You watch some of the other games the Texans have played previous to that, I actually think they looked better in those games than they did versus the Chargers. They had so many guys down versus the Chargers that they were just playing with heart.”
49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, whose availability for Sunday's game is in question because of a Grade 3 thumb sprain in his throwing hand, believes his team has emotionally recovered from their loss in Music City. After a short holiday break, the group is refocused and re-energized.
“It's playoff atmosphere now,” Garoppolo said. “Now it's for real. And you know, it has been for a while now, but now the chips are really on the table. So, it's an excited locker room, I'll say. Guys are confident right now. I know everything happened last week, but guys are confident just in the team that we have, and we know what we can do.”
Fred Warner always prepares as if the next game could be his last, and the All-Pro linebacker believes his teammates have the same focus.
"I think at this point in the season, if you didn’t have a reason to be hyper-focused or have extreme intention on your work, you have a reason to now,” Warner said. “Because these last two games are extremely important in the result of how we finish and extending the season.”