49ers face decision about whether to rest key players after clinching No. 1 seed
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The toughest decisions in Week 18 for San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan will come well before the game when he decides whether any of his star players will get the week off to rest up for the postseason.
The 49ers are in that enviable position after beating Washington 27-10 on Sunday and then watching Arizona upset Philadelphia, clinching the No. 1 seed for San Francisco.
It was easier to earn this bye than it was four years ago when it took a Dre Greenlaw tackle at the 1 in the closing seconds to seal a win at Seattle that gave the Niners the No. 1 seed.
So this will be the first time as a head coach that Shanahan heads into the playoffs with nothing at stake in the final regular-season game.
“When you give guys the game off, practice changes, too. That can end up hurting guys a lot and you end up just developing bad habits,” he said. “I’ve seen it cost a lot of teams. Also, it does give some guys a chance to get healthy.”
Several players nursing injuries, most notably star running back Christian McCaffrey, will take advantage of the situation and rest up before San Francisco's playoff opener at home in the divisional round on either Jan. 20 or 21.
But no matter what, they all will get off wild-card weekend thanks to the bounce-back performance against Washington that followed a home loss to Baltimore on Christmas night.
“It’s huge just in terms of our bodies and being able to rest and recover,” Purdy said. “There’s a lot of guys on our team that have given so much this whole season week in and week out. And to be able to get a little break is huge. We haven’t really had one since the bye week. So, this part of the season, every team’s gone through it, but for us to be able to lock up that one seed and get guys healthy going into playoffs is huge for us.”
Purdy responded well to his four-interception game against the Ravens. He went 22 for 28 for 230 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers against the Commanders. He also set the single-season franchise record for yards passing with 4,280, breaking the mark of 4,278 set by Jeff Garcia in 2000.
Opening drives. The 49ers got a field goal on the opening drive to give them a league-best 69 points on the first drive of the game this season. San Francisco has scored nine TDs and two field goals on the first drive of the game. The only teams since at least 2000 to score more on the opening drive are the 2020 Packers (73 points) and the 2007 Patriots (71).
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Punt returns. San Francisco has struggled in that area ever since Ray-Ray McCloud went down with a rib injury. Rookie Ronnie Bell did have a 16-yard return on Washington's first punt. But he also failed to catch another than went for a 55-yard punt downed inside the 20 and had no gain on his other return. McCloud will return to practice this week and could be ready for the playoffs.
RB Elijah Mitchell. After being an afterthought most of the season with McCaffrey handling the bulk of the rushing load, Mitchell once again looked like the player who set the franchise rookie rushing record in 2021. Mitchell had 17 carries for 80 yards and his first TD of the season.
DT Javon Kinlaw. The 2020 first-round pick has been given a bigger responsibility with Arik Armstead hurt but has struggled to make an impact. He had no pressures on Sunday and has been pushed around in the run game.
McCaffrey will miss this week's game with a mild calf strain, but should return for the playoff opener. ... CB Ambry Thomas will have surgery on a broken hand and likely will be back for the playoff opener. ... Defensive tackle Arik Armstead (foot, knee), tight end Ross Dwelley (ankle) and safety Ji’Ayir Brown (knee) are expected to miss this week to get more time to heal. ... Receiver Jauan Jennings and offensive lineman Jaylon Moore remain in concussion protocol.
10 — This is the record 10th time the 49ers have earned the top seed since seeding began in 1975. The Niners won four of their five Super Bowls as a top seed and made it there a fifth time in 2019 before losing to Kansas City. The only time San Francisco failed to win a single playoff game as the No. 1 seed came in 1987 in a 36-24 loss to Minnesota.
San Francisco hosts the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
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