LANDOVER, Md. — As the San Francisco 49ers filed into their locker room following Sunday’s win over the Washington Commanders, they were greeted by team CEO Jed York with a handshake and a score update.
The Arizona Cardinals had just taken the lead against the Philadelphia Eagles with 32 seconds remaining, leaving the Niners a few plays away from wrapping up the NFC’s No. 1 seed, along with the first-round bye and home-field advantage that go with it.
Inside the cramped quarters of FedEx Field, Niners players and coaches rushed to a tiny corner and huddled around a small television showing the final seconds. When Jalen Hurts’ last-gasp throw was intercepted, the room burst into loud cheers and a wild celebration.
With the Niners’ 27-10 win, the Cardinals’ victory against Philadelphia and the Dallas Cowboys’ controversial win against the Detroit Lions on Saturday night, the NFC’s road to the Super Bowl runs through Levi’s Stadium.
“It was sweet to be able to have that kind of moment,” said quarterback Brock Purdy, who set a franchise record for passing yards in a season on Sunday. “I’d grown up sort of watching TV clips and stuff of teams together watching and celebrating another team win for their case. For us to be able to do that, I was sort of just taking it in and I was like, ‘Man, this is something that I’ve seen on TV growing up.’ And now we get to all cram into the corner of the locker room and watch on a little TV. It was special.”
It’s the 10th time in franchise history and the first since 2019 — when they last went to the Super Bowl — the 49ers have the top seed in the NFC. That’s the most top seeds earned by any team in NFL history. In the previous nine years they were the top seed, they won the Super Bowl in four of them.
As far back as last postseason (when they lost to the Eagles in the NFC championship game), the Niners have never underestimated the importance of the No. 1 seed. After finally wrapping it up Sunday, they happily discussed the many ways it can help.
“It means a lot,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “Whoever gets that [No. 1 seed] has a big opportunity to make it to the ultimate goal, and that’s where we’re trying to go.”
First and foremost, their lofty perch comes with additional rest. Not only do the Niners not have to play on wild-card weekend, but they also have the option to give banged-up starters or veterans time off in their Week 18 regular-season finale at home against the Los Angeles Rams.
That’s no small factor, given that San Francisco’s injury report has been growing by the week and that the team has arguably played its best football of the season following its Week 9 bye, winning seven of eight games and averaging an 18.6-point margin of victory in those seven wins.
“It’s huge,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “These last couple of weeks, we’ve just been a little banged up. There’s been a couple positions that just we’ve been getting really thin at. Guys had to push through in a number of spots and some of those guys are doing it. Hopefully, this will help them out.”
The Niners were already without starting left guard Aaron Banks (toe), defensive tackle Arik Armstead (foot) and strong safety Ji’Ayir Brown (knee) as well as key reserve receiver Jauan Jennings (concussion) and returner Ray-Ray McCloud (ribs) entering Sunday’s game.
Potentially making matters worse Sunday was running back Christian McCaffrey’s departure in the third quarter with a right calf injury. McCaffrey piled up 91 scrimmage yards to push his season total over 2,000 before leaving the game. He did not return but indicated afterward it was more precautionary.
“I think it was minor and just made the smart move, especially not knowing what was going to happen next week,” McCaffrey said. “I didn’t just want to go in there and make it any worse. With certain things, you can’t be dumb about it.”
The Niners now have the option to give McCaffrey an extra week to heal and be as close to full strength as possible heading into the postseason. Shanahan didn’t have an immediate answer for how much the starters would play against the Rams, but simple roster math dictates the Niners can’t just sit all 22 offensive and defensive starters.
“We’ll definitely try to rest some guys, but I mean, you can’t rest everybody,” Shanahan said.
“It’s too hard and you don’t have enough players, so we’ve got to field a team without a doubt. But we’re going to have a big week of practice. I still think there’s lots of things we got to obviously get a lot better at. And the only way you do that is playing football and practicing football. So we’ll have a big Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, figure out our roster as the week goes and decide what we’ll do for Sunday.”
Beyond the rest, the 49ers won’t have to get on an airplane again until they reach Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas, should they make it that far. For a team that will have racked up the second-most travel miles this season with five trips to the Eastern time zone and another to the Central time zone, that’s another meaningful perk of claiming the top spot.
“It’s hard having to change everything and leave on a Friday for these long-ass road trips, but I’m thankful we don’t have to do it again,” cornerback Charvarius Ward said. “Everybody’s got to come to Levi’s, and we’re trying to spank everybody that comes to Levi’s.”