49ers' signature win means a tight grip on NFC's top spot

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With a long road trip looming to face the Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints in consecutive weeks, it wasn't overstating things to call Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers (8-3) the biggest of the season for the San Francisco 49ers.

The Niners delivered one of their best performances of the season in a game they absolutely had to win. San Francisco's defense fired on all cylinders from the beginning, and once the offense found its footing, the Niners walloped the Packers 37-8.

The victory has plenty of short-term benefit, but it also means a lot in the big picture.

At 10-1, the Niners remain in control of the NFC playoff picture with Sunday's win offering a significant boost to their chances of nailing down the conference's No. 1 overall seed and home-field advantage in the postseason. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, the 49ers now have a 45% chance at landing the top seed. A loss would have dropped that number to 10%. Green Bay, meanwhile, now holds a 4% chance at the top spot.

San Francisco's victory carried even more weight because both Seattle and New Orleans won earlier Sunday. The Seahawks remain only a game behind the Niners in the race for the NFC West division and the Saints still figure prominently in the mix with Seattle and the Niners in the race for home-field advantage.

Underlining just how important the Niners' games against Baltimore and New Orleans are is the tidbit that the 49ers will stay in Florida for the week between games in order to avoid the long trip back home and then back to New Orleans.

Niners coach Kyle Shanahan didn't want to look too far ahead at the playoff picture.

"We are very well aware of how tight of a race it is, but it's way too early to sit there and focus on it," he said. "The way things are going, I'm sure it will be the last week that really is worth knowing what's out there. There's a lot of football to play and a lot of games and a lot of good teams out there."

With Sunday's win, the Niners took a big step in the right direction.

Describe the game in two words: Signature win. Despite their 9-1 start, the Niners have been questioned at every turn, mostly because of a schedule that hasn't allowed many chances at the type of victories that could validate them as legitimate contenders. But even the most cynical observers could not have watched the Niners thoroughly dominate their closest NFC pursuers and concluded that they are anything other than a team that has all the pieces for a deep January run.

QB Breakdown: Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo didn't have much protection early, but once the line settled in, so did Garoppolo on the way to one of his most efficient performances of the season. He finished 14-of-20 for 253 yards with two touchdowns and, perhaps most important, no interceptions for a passer rating of 145.8. As more teams work to take away the Niners' rushing attack, Garoppolo finds himself needing to spark the offense on a more consistent basis. Over the past month, he has been up to the task, which could portend big things for the 49ers in the postseason.