Conversations change when your team has checked off the “division winner” box from the checklist. The first step is qualifying for the playoffs. The second step is preparing for the playoff run.
For the 49ers, this conversation is different. The amount of injuries this team has had to overcome makes the accomplishment of this season even more remarkable. The depth and talent of this roster are unmistakable. But I don’t think anyone could have predicted the injuries to two starting QBs.
The question becomes: do the 49ers push for a higher seed or rest their players for optimal health?
There are two ways to approach this question. First, the team has clinched the division, so it affords them the luxury of bringing Deebo Samuel along as slowly as possible. It’s feasible that Samuel can be implemented back with ease in the postseason.
Last season, the 49ers were fighting for their playoff chances. As a result, players had to fight through all of their injuries. Luckily, this isn’t the case with this year’s team.
On the other hand, Brock Purdy will have a handful of games and reps under his belt before the lights shine the brightest.
Javon Kinlaw is returning on Saturday. Kinlaw can benefit from as many reps as possible for conditioning and sharpness.
Then there is the whole rust factor. Football is very much a momentum, timing, and cohesive sport. Firing on all cylinders is the goal.
Kyle Shanahan spoke directly about this on Tuesday: “I’ve been on a lot of teams where you rest guys and, or give guys a few more weeks, and those are usually the guys who struggle the most in that first playoff game.”
The 49ers can gain the number one seed in the NFC, but it’s not likely. The Eagles need one victory in their next three games to clinch the first-round bye. Even with Jalen Hurts injured, it feels like a formality. Crazier things have happened.
What will be interesting for the Eagles is the potential long layoff for Hurts and how sharp he will be in his return.
This brings me to why the 49ers should play for the highest seed possible until it’s not.
Currently, the Vikings occupy the second seed. Saturday against the Colts proves that anything can happen on game day. Sure, the Vikings completed the comeback. However, one could have the takeaway that Minnesota can be beaten by anyone, provided they can hold on to a lead.
The 49ers are one game behind Minnesota. Gaining that second seed should be the focus. The travel schedule drastically changes. November 21st was the last time the team had to leave the west coast. If the second seed is secured, the next time the team would travel across the country would be the NFC championship game.
Also, what if the Eagles falter in their first game? Now, the path to Glendale runs through Santa Clara.
The situation should remain fluid as seeding may change week-to-week. The focus should be fighting for the highest seed while ascending. Health is paramount, so it should always be a concern. If certain players require rest to get healthy for the postseason, so be it.
Resting players to hide from potential injuries isn’t the best approach.