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The 7 O’Clock Club: Who’s next after the Steelers?

It’s 5 7 o’clock somewhere…

Buffalo Bills v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.


It’s a 4-day weekend in Thailand, so I’m in holiday mode and posting this one on “Thai time”, where two hours late is...expected.

Who’s next?

I’m not joking...I was so focused on the Steelers game that I had to check the schedule this week to find out who’s up next.

In case you weren’t sure, it’s the San Francisco 49ers. While it’s a road game for Washington, it’s not quite a home game for the Niners, who are unable to play in Santa Clara at the moment, and so have taken up temporary digs in Arizona.

I watched some 49ers games early in the season — both with Garoppolo and without from memory — but nothing since their season went south. They opened up 2-1 to begin 2020, and they were 4-3 after 7 games.

It’s been mostly bad news since then. The Niners have lost 4 of their last 5 games, including three in a row before their Week 11 bye, and a loss to the Buffalo Bills this week.

That may not mean that they’ve been playing really bad football. Those four losses came at the hands of good teams: The Seahawks (8-4), Packers (9-3), Saints (10-2) and Bills (9-3). All four of those teams finished Week 13 at the top of their respective divisions.

Of course, I haven’t seen a Niners game since Week 6 (I watched them play three games this year - against the Giants, Eagles and Rams), but none of the four recent losses was particularly close, judging by the final scores. The score differentials were -10, -17, -14, and -10.

Injuries

The team has been heavily affected by injuries.

The most notable offensive injury is probably a high ankle sprain suffered by QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who started 6 games in the first 8 weeks, but who didn’t manage to finish the games in Week 5 or Week 8.

Backup Nick Mullens has started in 6 games and took over for Jimmy G in two others. He is 2-4 as a starter, splitting his games against two NFC East opponents (Giants and Eagles) and getting a win against division rival LA Rams while picking up three losses in the recent stretch of games discussed above.

Defensively, the 49ers have been without Nick Bosa since he tore his ACL in Week 2.

Other players who are currently not available to the active roster include Ziggy Ansah, Jonathan Cyprien, Jaquiski Tartt, George Kittle, Solomon Thomas, Weston Richburg (who is on PUP and hasn’t played at all this season), and Dee Ford.

All in all, the 49ers have been taking the field with a depleted roster, and have been finding it difficult to have success against a lineup of division leaders in recent weeks.

Records and recent results

The Niners have a 5-7 record, which is identical to Washington’s, but, while that record is good for the best record in the NFC East, it’s only good enough for 4th place in the NFC West.

I would have been tempted to say that SF saw its needle pointing down due to the string of tough opponents while Washington had seen its needle pointing up while playing a string of bad teams if it hadn’t been for the victory on the road against the Steelers on Monday afternoon. Washington’s victory against the previously undefeated Steelers puts this game in an entirely different light.

San Fransisco is favored by 3 points, but then, the Football Team was the underdog on points against the Bengals, Cowboys and Steelers and came away with three consecutive wins. It will be interesting to see if the team can keep the winning streak alive in this third consecutive road game.

Power Rankings

The Power Rankings published by NFL.com this week rank Washington at #19 and San Francisco at #20, which is probably a good indication of how closely these two teams are perceived. Here’s what Dan Hanzus wrote about the Niners in the Power Rankings article:

Kyle Shanahan said the 49ers’ county-mandated migration to Arizona had “absolutely nothing, zero, to do” with his team’s flat performance in a 34-24 loss to the Bills. It’s what you expect most coaches to say, but we tend to believe him, based on how Buffalo just looked like the far better team on Monday night. Coordinator Robert Saleh has been rightfully praised for coaching up a San Francisco defense decimated by injuries and COVID-19 designations, but the Niners had absolutely no answers for Josh Allen. The Bills quarterback picked apart Saleh’s defense, setting the stage for an Allen v. Nick Mullens shootout that had no chance of being competitive. At 5-7, the Niners likely need to win out and get help to defend their NFC title in January.

That last point can’t be overlooked; the Niners, playing as they do in the NFC West, face long odds of making the playoffs, as the only path available to them is as a wild card team. A loss to Washington this week would probably put an end to the Niners playoff hopes, while Washington might (just might) remain a viable candidate to become NFC East champion even if they lose this week.

Familiar faces

Of course, San Fransisco has a lot of faces on both the coaching staff and roster that are familiar to Washington fans. That familiarity begins with the head coach, Kyle Shanahan, who was the offensive coordinator in Washington when his father Mike Shanahan was the head coach. When he brought his team to Washington to play during a monsoon in Week 7 of the ‘19 season, Shanahan was a bit snarky in his press conferences, having very little good to say about the franchise that he felt treated his father very badly. This week his tone is considerably more moderate; he has spoken of having “closure” and of being focused just on football.

Another familiar face is the Niners’ Left Tackle, Trent Williams, who went through a protracted battle with the Washington franchise in 2019 that ended badly with Trent reporting to play in Week 10, but being suddenly placed on the NFI list when his helmet didn’t feel comfortable.

At the time, it felt like a situation that, like so many others, had been badly handled by Bruce Allen. There were many people — I was among them — who thought that Ron Rivera would be able to repair the rift and keep Williams in burgundy & gold for the 2020 season. Instead, he was traded to the 49ers on during the draft. Washington got a 5th round pick — I think it was the one used to draft Khaleke Hudson — and still have a 3rd rounder in the 2021 draft, which looks like it’ll be a lot better pick than most would have expected prior to the start of this season. As things stand right now, SF is 14th in the draft order, while most people had them marked down as a likely playoff team before the injury to Garoppolo.

Like his head coach, Williams isn’t talking about taking “revenge” on his former team:

“The people I had an issue with, they’re not there. The people who helped instigate the situation are no longer a part of the organization. I’m not going to sit here and carry some grudge because people expect me to carry it.”

Another offensive lineman who used to play for Shanahan in DC and who followed him to the west coast is RG Tom Compton. He signed with the Falcons when Kyle was there as the OC, and had stops with the Bears, Vikings and Jets before signing with the Niners this off-season. Compton is in the concussion protocol and has not practiced this week. That may be one reason why the Niners promoted former Redskins C/G Tony Bergstrom from the practice squad this week, presumably so he could play in the ‘revenge’ game against his old team.

Jordan Reed, the former 3rd round pick and starting tight end for the Redskins, is also playing for the 49ers. His career in Washington came to an end after too many injuries and concussions, the last one causing him to miss the entirety of the 2019 season. Washington released him early this past off-season, and he signed with SF in August. He spent some time on IR earlier this season, but is expected to be healthy and active for Sunday’s game. In 7 games this season, he has 22 catches for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has had more than 3 catches in a game only twice this season (7 vs Jets in Week 2, 5 vs Saints in Week 11) and his 62 yards against New Orleans mark the only time this year that he’s exceeded 50 yards in a game.

Dangerous players

The two players that I would highlight for San Fransisco are wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who was selected in the second round of last year’s draft, and running back Raheem Mostert.

Deebo Samuel

Samuel had a very good rookie season, with 802 receiving yards, 159 rushing yards and 6 TDs (3 rushing and 3 receiving).

His 2020 season has been more muted. The receiver missed the first three games of the regular season plus Weeks 8-11. He has played in only 6 games, but has been active for the past two weeks and has performed very well.

Against the Rams in Week 12, he caught 11 passes on 13 targets for 133 yards. He followed up that performance by catching 6 passes on 9 targets for 73 yards this past Monday. He’s not rushing as successfully as he did as a rookie; so far this season he has 7 carries for just 17 yards and no TDs.

I think between the pass rush and the defensive backs, Washington’s defense can control him, but Samuel is a dangerous receiver who seems to be fully healthy now and doing everything he can to help his team win. Samuel is listed on the Niners’ injury report with a foot injury; he was listed “DNP” on Wednesday and “Limited” on Thursday.

From Niners Nation on Wednesday:

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan met with the media ahead of Wednesday’s practice to discuss a few injury updates. Deebo Samuel will miss Wednesday’s practice with a foot contusion. Kyle Shanahan said Deebo took a knee to his foot and is still sore. If this were a regular “Wednesday” practice, then Shanahan said Samuel would’ve been good to go. Since today is a “Tuesday,” the team is playing it safe.

Raheem Mostert

Mostert enjoyed a breakout season in 2019, rushing for 772 yards and 8 touchdowns, and adding another 180 yards and 2 TDs in the passing game.

This season, similar to Samuels, Mostert has lost a lot of games to injury, appearlng in just 6 games (he played weeks 1 & 2, 5 & 6, and 12 & 13).

He’s averaging 5.1 yards per attempt, versus 5.6 ypa in 2019, As you can see, he’s been under 5 ypa in 4 games, and his average is boosted by two huge efforts early in the season against the Jets and Dolphins.

Once again, I believe that Washington’s defense, which is ranked 10th against the run, should be able to limit Mostert’s impact, but Shanahan’s offensive scheme has always been effective at maximizing the impact of the run game.

Bottom line

For a while this season, it felt like the NFC East champion would be the team that simply lost the least. A 5- or 6-game winning team as division champ didn’t seem so far-fetched a month ago.

Now, though, it feels like both Washington and New York are playing the kind of football that makes them competitive with everyone else in the league. Suddenly, it feels like whichever of these two teams goes out and wins consistently will get the division crown and will have a chance to win games in the playoffs. It no longer feels like the division champ will “back in” to the playoffs to be followed by a first-game exit.

The only way the Football Team is going to get to the postseason now is by beating good teams. Going 2-2 or worse in the final four games probably won’t be enough; 7-9 isn’t going to get Washington where they want to go. That makes this contest against the 49ers important. Washington has to follow up a good game against the Steelers with an even better one against the 49ers.

Washington won 3 in a row in 2018 before going on an extended losing streak. You have to go back to 2016 to find the last time this team put together a 4-game win streak. This is the time to stack wins; this is the time to build winning culture; this is the time to earn more respect on the field.

Kickoff is at 4:25 p.m. EST on Sunday.

Poll

What ultimately happens to the Football Team’s current winning streak?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    It stops at 3
    (31 votes)
  • 23%
    It goes to 4 on Sunday, but ends there
    (48 votes)
  • 6%
    It gets to 5 this season, but no furhter
    (13 votes)
  • 0%
    It gets to 6, but ends Week 17 in Philly
    (2 votes)
  • 53%
    They’re winning out, baby!!
    (107 votes)
201 votes total Vote Now