WASHINGTON — The stakes for the San Francisco 49ers down the stretch of the season aren't particularly high after they clinched the NFC West last week.
The Niners are most likely slotted into either the second or third seed in the NFC with a possible second-round home playoff game in the balance.
The situation is very different for Washington (7-6-1) heading into Saturday's game at San Francisco (10-4) after the Commanders lost last week to the New York Giants, putting a dent into their playoff hopes.
Washington is clinging to the seventh seed but could fall out of playoff position with another loss.
"I think that's a big part of the mentality that we have to take is that we've got to go out and we've got to play our best," coach Ron Rivera said. "We've got to get some things corrected and fixed and ready to go. We can't struggle in some of the areas that we have lately. Those things have to be addressed and they are being addressed."
The biggest issues for the Commanders are on offense after they were held to 32 points combined in back-to-back games against the Giants and struggled to finish drives in the red zone.
Now they're set to face the NFL's stingiest defense.
"It is somewhat of a measuring stick and it is a good opportunity to kind of see how we rank and how we stack up against people," Rivera said.
The Niners have stacked up well the past two months with a seven-game winning streak led by a defense that hasn't allowed more than 17 points in a game during that entire stretch.
The offense hasn't been as dominant but has done enough, even after rookie quarterback Brock Purdy was forced into action in the first quarter of a Week 13 win over Miami after an injury to Jimmy Garoppolo.
The 49ers are assured of no worse than the three seed in the NFC but could move higher if they make up one game on Minnesota or three on Philadelphia in the final three weeks.
"I want to win all three games, so we're hot going in the playoffs," tight end George Kittle said. "That's what I want. We have a rookie quarterback that needs all the reps he gets. I hope guys aren't asking for plays off. ... I hope pedal to the metal and we're out there trying to get better and trying to win football games because our offense wasn't pretty against Seattle."
Purdy has fared quite well in his limited action, looking much more capable than expected for the final pick of the draft. Since taking over for Garoppolo, he is 58 for 84 (69%) for 612 yards with six touchdowns and one interception.
He also played through injuries to his ribs and oblique last week.
"He's got so much toughness," running back Christian McCaffrey said. "He's resilient. He's able to go out there and sacrifice a lot and make some plays knowing that he's going through a lot. Just a testament to his character and his toughness."
RUN, TAYLOR, RUN
Taylor Heinicke got the nod to start a ninth consecutive game instead of the Commanders going back to Carson Wentz in large part because of his mobility and willingness to take off and run to evade pass rushers. Heinicke knows he's not going to run the ball like Cam Newton or Jalen Hurts, but he can scramble far better than Wentz.
"There are some plays that we have in our offense that allows me to read somebody and get some stuff from my legs," Heinicke said. "I feel comfortable with my legs. I feel like I can make some things happen. Obviously I'm a smaller guy, so when it's time to get hit, I'm trying to get down."
Heinicke fumbled twice in Washington's loss to the Giants last week, so ball security is a focus.
"You got two hands on the ball," Rivera said. "Two hands have to remain on the ball and protect it to the ground."
McCaffrey and Rivera have a long history with Rivera serving as the coach in Carolina for McCaffrey's first three seasons. McCaffrey had his most productive campaign in 2019 under Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who has the same role in Washington. McCaffrey gained 2,392 yards from scrimmage that season with 19 TDs.
"He was awesome," McCaffrey said about Rivera. "I have so much respect for him. I know a lot of guys in the staff and he drafted me. He believed in me, gave me an opportunity. I'm always thankful for Coach Rivera."
MAYBE CHASE TIME
While Niners edge rusher Nick Bosa continues his monster season, a player many compared to him might finally be ready to start his. Chase Young is expected to make his season debut more than 13 months since tearing the ACL in his right knee.
The team has been extra careful with Young, whose operation involved grafting part of his left patellar tendon on the other side to fix the tear. It helped that the front four led by defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne and end Montez Sweat had been so effective, but after Washington failed to sack Giants quarterback Daniel Jones once, it seems time to see what impact Young can have.
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