That wasn’t exactly a tour de force.
Sunday night was an exercise in lukewarm football. It was a performance riddled with consistent inconsistencies and almosts.
There’s no doubt that blood pressures around the Bay Area were at worrisome levels for much of the night. It could have easily been one of those, “well, that’s what happens when you let a team hang around,” losses.
Instead, as unsatisfying as the 49ers’ 22-16 primetime win may have been to some fans, it was massive. It’s the sort of win you need to be a playoff team and potential Super Bowl contender.
This team wasted early chances against the Bears and Broncos. They needed this one.
Don’t mistake this for crediting the 49ers for not taking advantage of opportunities. You can point out a lot of regrettable moments.
Their propensity to stall out in red zone situations has a very real potential to derail their goals this season. There is definitely room to ask whether Kyle Shanahan is too conservative in short-yardage situations.
If you wanted proof that the offense had turned a corner following a season-best performance against the Rams, you’re probably feeling a bit less than convinced.
… especially against a team missing the likes of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton, their star left tackle and star defensive end. And so on.
But the Chargers have a very real propensity to hold on. Their head coach is unconvincing and you can make a compelling argument that their offense is archaic, and failing to take advantage of the abilities of their stellar, young quarterback. Even with those criticisms and injury woes, they eke out games.
They’re now 4-2 in one-score games this season. Their other loss is to the Chiefs.
Kyle Shanahan acknowledged the flaws in the 49ers’ performance.
“I was proud of our team today. I want to play better,” Shanahan said. “I want to blow people out. I want to score every time we go. But those are the types of game that that team is really good at winning, the Chargers… these guys are tough to get into the end zone against. They did that to us today. But we still found a way to win.”
And they played all the hits, even if it was an iffy rendition.
Jimmy Garoppolo (whose off-schedule throw to Ray-Ray McCloud was one of the best of his career) didn’t turn the ball over and had an all-around solid performance. The 49ers ran the ball 40-plus times for 157 yards. There were key third-down conversions, especially to their third-down receiver, Jauan Jennings. The defense was stellar, limiting the Chargers to three field goals after an opening touchdown.
It had all the markings of a traditional 49ers-under-Shanahan win.
Yes, this is perilously close to a diatribe of football cliches about how “good teams win ugly.” San Francisco has a significant amount of work to do to prove it’s bidding for more than a Wild Card spot.
But all those corny lines of coach speak stick around because there is truth behind them.
In 2019, the 49ers secured five one-score wins.
The Chiefs, despite having a generational quarterback who can create a blowout in the blink of an eye, often find themselves in close games. They’ve won three and lost two (one to the Bills, one to the Colts) this season.
The 8-0 Philadelphia Eagles beat the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals by three points each, and the Jacksonville Jaguars by a touchdown. Those teams have a combined 10-19 record.
It’s a reminder of another cliche that Kyle Shanahan loves to repeat. Winning in the NFL is hard.
You’re not going to cruise through every game. And there are plenty of very close games that end with a more than one-score margin. The 49ers beat the Rams 24-9 earlier this year courtesy of a late Talanoa Hufanga interception (which is quickly becoming his signature).
Most of the NFL operates in a grey area. The list of decidedly great teams is short.
The Eagles, Chiefs, Bills?
The Bills just lost back-to-back games and blew a 17-point third quarter lead. The Ravens? The Vikings? The Dolphins, maybe? Once you start getting into the likes of the two New York teams, the Cowboys and the Titans, you get into a group with excellent records, but with pretty glaring flaws that figure to limit them in the playoffs.
Outside of Philly, KC, Buffalo and Baltimore (maybe Miami, too), it’s hard to find Super Bowl contenders you’d theoretically bet on.
From the 49ers’ perspective, it’s the Eagles and everybody else. The NFC is weak.
They’ve beaten Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott in the playoffs. The Giants’ quarterback is Daniel Jones. Tom Brady’s bad-good-bad Bucs might be the most mercurial team in the conference.
If San Francisco beat the Seattle Seahawks in December, they’ll probably win the division.
When you look back on this season, you won’t malign a six-point win over the Chargers. It will be part of a messy puzzle in a likely playoff run.