San Francisco 49ers' postseason formula is simple

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As the calendar flips to 2022, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has just one resolution.

"That we're still playing football longer than a week into it," Shanahan said.

It's a reasonable and attainable goal for the 8-7 Niners, who remain the NFC's sixth seed after Miami beat New Orleans on Monday night. And while ESPN's Football Power Index still views the Niners as having a robust 71% chance of making the postseason, nothing is guaranteed.

For Niners fans, that is the maddening reality after watching their team give away another winnable game to the Tennessee Titans last Thursday. It was the latest in an ever-growing line of frustrating losses in games that the 49ers couldn't finish largely because of their own mistakes.

Against the Titans, the list of egregious self-inflicted wounds included quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo throwing a pair of bad interceptions, nearly throwing another and missing wide-open fullback Kyle Juszczyk for an easy touchdown. Their defense allowed six third-and-10 or longer conversions, the most by any team this season and the Titans' nine third-down conversions averaged a whopping 10.8 yards.

As the Niners enter the final two weeks, there's no doubt what their formula has to be to qualify for the postseason: Keep turnovers to a minimum on offense, create some takeaways on defense and convert more third downs than the opponent.

If that sounds simplistic, it's because it is. In their eight wins, the 49ers are plus-7 in takeaway margin and have been even or better in all of those victories. In their seven defeats, the Niners are minus-11 in turnover differential and have been minus-2 or worse in five of them.

"Our thing has been the last five weeks we turn the ball over and we don't force any turnovers it's hard to win," tight end George Kittle said.

On third down, the 49ers offense has a conversion rate of 30.7% in their seven losses, including five games under 40%. In their eight wins, that number rises to 44.3%, with six games at 40% or better. Defensively, the 49ers have kept opponents to an average of 37.1% in the victories and yielded a 40.7% rate in their defeats.

That discrepancy might not seem like much but considering San Francisco has five losses by seven or fewer points, every missed chance to get off or stay on the field, has been significant. Just as it was in Tennessee.

"What ultimately ended up losing us the game was the third downs and the takeaways," linebacker Fred Warner said. "We had to have one or the other. If we won all those third downs, we're not talking about this right now. And if we took the ball away, the third downs would've been covered up a little bit more. We lost in both those areas, and that's why we lost the game."

Last week's loss to the Titans, along with the two defeats to Seattle, followed a similar blueprint in which the Niners started out hot but found themselves unable to finish. Cut down on mistakes and win just one more of those games and San Francisco would either already have a playoff spot wrapped up or need just a victory against the Houston Texans on Sunday to sew it up.

Instead, the Niners still need to win on Sunday and get some help to qualify in Week 17. If the 49ers win Sunday and the Saints lose to Carolina, the Niners would be in. But if San Francisco splits its final two games and ends up in a three-way tie with New Orleans and Philadelphia at 9-8, it would be on the outside looking in based on common opponent records. It's a tough spot to be in but one largely of the 49ers' own making.

That means the Niners will have to do some scoreboard watching over the next few weeks and will even occasionally let their minds wander to the what ifs of losses past.

"I think it's human nature but that's the case with any loss at any point in the season," Juszczyk said. "It's so natural in any loss to point to a couple plays here or there and just think, 'Man, if we had turned that around, that's a win' and it's not always how things work. Every play matters, even the ones that we don't really harp on."

The 49ers have been in tough spots before this season and responded with some of their best performances of the year. They'll need to do it again to make Shanahan's resolution a reality.

"I really believe in this team," Kittle said. "I think we've got playmakers all over the field. I don't want to say it's a blessing in disguise, but we have our backs against the wall now. We have to win. This is a group that's resilient and a group that is going to come back to work. I think we're going to grind really hard."