Even with a thoroughly unimpressive 2-3 record, the 49ers are in the thick of the NFC playoff picture.
But with 12 games remaining in the regular season, that is a topic for another day.
Right now, the 49ers just need to win a game — a sensation they have not experienced since Sept. 19 in Philadelphia.
They must reverse course on this season and bring an end to their three-game losing streak before the team’s hopes and spirits get washed away rather quickly.
Even though the 49ers’ game Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts is not a “must-win” in the truest sense of the term, they need this one just to snap themselves out of a tailspin that threatens to take down the season.
Here are five players who will have key roles as the 49ers look to win a game at Levi’s Stadium for the first time since Oct. 18, 2020:
5. QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Of course, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo could be No. 1 every time he takes the field as the starter. But we’re going to start this off with a big splash.
Garoppolo returns to action after missing the 49ers’ Week 5 game at the Arizona Cardinals with a calf injury. He will be back in the lineup Sunday night. With rookie Trey Lance likely out with a knee injury, this is Garoppolo's game from start to finish.
"I think when we're at our best is when we can get into a rhythm," Garoppolo said. "I think when the run game, passing game are working together, get a couple easy ones, get the play-action game working, I think when all of those things are clicking and we can get into a rhythm that's when we're at our best."
The 49ers need Garoppolo to take care of the football and make the plays necessary on third downs to move the chains.
The Colts’ defense will not give Garoppolo too many chances to throw the ball deep. That’s OK because Garoppolo is generally not inclined to take shots down the field.
And if the 49ers are not going to throw the ball over the top, Garoppolo has to avoid mistakes underneath. He has to take care of the football and not be baited into ill-advised throws into traffic over the middle.
4. LB Fred Warner
Linebacker Fred Warner took the time over the bye week to reassess a lot of things. The All-Pro linebacker has to start playing like an All-Pro linebacker.
And things will not be easy Sunday, as running back Jonathan Taylor provides one of the big challenges this team will face.
Taylor is an explosive runner who averages 5.4 yards per rushing attempt. He has become more of a factor in the Colts’ offense with quarterback Carson Wentz connecting on 15 of the 18 passes thrown his way.
Taylor has a combined 682 yards and five touchdowns in six games as a runner and receiver.
Taylor first impressed Warner when they played against each other in college. Warner is the person most responsible for slowing down Indianapolis’ best offensive player.
3. WR Brandon Aiyuk
Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk’s production has taken a major hit from a promising rookie season. Coming back from the bye week provides him with a fresh start within the season. General manager John Lynch said there is a sense of urgency to get him going.
Coach Kyle Shanahan and Garoppolo have been blamed in some corners for Aiyuk’s shocking lack of production through five games. But Aiyuk is most at fault for not doing all the things necessary to put himself in a position to take his game to the next level.
In five games, Aiyuk has just eight receptions for 90 yards. That is unacceptable, and this is a game in which he must take advantage of all the attention Deebo Samuel is sure to attract on the other side.
2. DE Nick Bosa
Defensive end Nick Bosa could have been in the conversation for Super Bowl MVP.
Bosa proved that night to be a difficult assignment for then-Kansas City left tackle Eric Fisher, who was fortunate that referee Bill Vinovich and his crew opted to ignore all would-be offensive holding infractions.
Fisher is now the Colts’ starting left tackle. In five games, he has allowed four sacks and 19 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Bosa has the ability to wreck this game for Fisher and Wentz, who has found success getting the ball down the field.
Bosa will be looking to add to his team-leading total of five sacks on the season, and he takes a lot of pride in his run defense, too.
1. LG Laken Tomlinson
Many around the 49ers will refer to DeForest Buckner as an “old friend.”
That is certainly not how left guard Laken Tomlinson will view him on Sunday night.
Buckner, who played his first four seasons with the 49ers, faces his former team for the first time since his shocking trade to the Colts.
Buckner is a force in the middle of the Indianapolis defense, and he will put a lot of stress on the interior of the 49ers’ offensive line. He won a lot of head-to-head battles against Tomlinson during their seasons as teammates, so Tomlinson's task will be to prevent Buckner from being a game-changing presence.
It’s not just Tomlinson, either.
Buckner will move around. Right guard Daniel Brunskill also will be tested, and center Alex Mack will undoubtedly be assigned to provide help for both guards.