SANTA CLARA – Let’s all take a deep breath and keep this whole thing in proper perspective.
After all, it’s not like the 49ers’ Week 17 game at the Seattle Seahawks is the biggest thing ever.
“It’s not the Catalina Wine Mixer,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “You guys remember that movie? It’s not the biggest deal in the world.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan has used the fictional helicopter leasing event from Will Ferrell’s 2008 movie “Step Brothers” as a way to keep things loose and give his players something relatable – while also maintaining proper balance.
“Not that we don’t understand what’s at stake and how exciting this can be and all that stuff,” Saleh said. “Your mindset should always be internally driven in that every day, every practice, every rep is a championship play, practice, rep, day, whatever it is, meeting.
“You have to approach it that way and the opponent is just secondary.”
Here are five important 49ers to watch in Week 17 on Sunday night when the 2019 NFC West champion will be crowned:
5. WR Kendrick Bourne
Just call this one a hunch.
Bourne had a difficult game with multiple dropped passes when the 49ers lost to the Seahawks on Nov. 11. Since that time, he has put that rough game behind him and made some key plays in crucial moments.
The Seahawks will be focused on stopping George Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel. But Bourne is the kind of player who can emerge and make a big play. This could be the kind of stage on which he shines.
After all, Bourne is tied for the team lead with five touchdown receptions. (Kittle also has five scoring catches.) And Bourne simply does not seem to be affected by the pressure of the moment. It’s one of the reasons Shanahan is not reluctant to go to him in big spots.
4. LB Fred Warner
What a bargain. The 49ers selected Warner in the third round of the 2018 draft. In his first two NFL seasons, he has played like a first-rounder.
Warner has been, perhaps, the most valuable member of the team’s defense. From his spot in the middle of the field, he is a leader who gets everyone lined up and on the same page. He leads the 49ers in tackles, and provides some game-changing plays, too.
It is a bit of an unknown what the Seahawks will feature on Sunday. Veteran running back Marshawn Lynch is back after not playing a football game in more than 14 months. He is expected to be a load, as always.
It will be imperative for the 49ers to limit Seattle’s rushing yards on first and second downs.
Then, on third downs, Warner must show his versatility to cover in the passing game as well as tracking down Russell Wilson to make sure he does not make big plays with his legs when he escapes the pocket.
Warner has the kind of versatility that makes him a big part of the 49ers’ overall defensive game plan.
3. LT Joe Staley
Veteran left tackle Joe Staley had every reason to be rusty. He was, and Seattle edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney had, far and away, his most impactful game of the season.
Clowney tore up the 49ers’ offense with quarterback pressure after quarterback pressure, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble return for a touchdown in Seattle’s 27-24 overtime victory at Levi’s Stadium back in Week 10.
Staley, who was returning from a six-week absence due to a broken left lower leg, was nowhere near his peak. This week, however, figures to be different.
Now, it’s Clowney who is coming back from an injury. He has missed the past two games with a core muscle injury. Clowney has appeared in 12 games this season. Shockingly, he has only three sacks. Sometimes he shows up to play; sometimes he does not.
Staley said he is feeling better than at any point this season. He should be ready to provide the kind of pass protection in a difficult environment that will be required for the 49ers’ offense to properly function.
2. QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo will make his 16th start of the season after never starting more than five games consecutively over his first five years in the NFL. Garoppolo is putting together the best statistical season for a 49ers quarterback in two decades.
News flash: The 49ers are a better team with Garoppolo on the field.
The 49ers are 18-5 in Garoppolo’s starts over the past three seasons. In games Garoppolo has not started during that same period, the 49ers are 4-20.
Of course, we’re not saying that Garoppolo is solely responsible for all those victories. There are a number of other factors at play, but let’s just say Garoppolo knows how to win. During his time with the 49ers, he has led six fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. It does not get much more difficult than going up against the Seahawks in their raucous home environment. But Garoppolo believes he is ready.
This is game No. 256 of the NFL regular season. It’s the biggest non-playoff game of the season in the league. This is valuable experience for Garoppolo, whose most-important start of his NFL career only will be topped by the next game he starts when the 49ers open the playoffs.
1. CB Richard Sherman
Cornerback Richard Sherman was at the center of the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry when it was going strong in the early part of the decade. Now, he is on the other side. He has gone from an individual that 49ers fans hated to a beloved member of the organization and community.
Pro Football Focus this week named Sherman as the best NFL cornerback of the decade. This season he was named to his fifth Pro Bowl, which is especially significant because the Seahawks released him following the 2017 season while he was rehabbing from a torn Achilles.
This is a legacy game for Sherman, though he said he is approaching it as just another week. He won with the Seahawks, and now he is winning with the 49ers. A division championship and home-field advantage would be huge.
The Seahawks running game does not figure to be much of a factor. The Seattle offensive line is bad. Wilson will have to get the ball out quickly, which might enable Sherman to jump some routes and come up with a big play against his former team.