Grant Cohn: 49ers aim for playoffs? It isn't as farfetched as you think

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I want to tweak my opinion of the 49ers moves this offseason.

I’ve been hard on the team since free agency started. Coming into it, I automatically thought long-term. I figured John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan would take the patient approach to rebuilding the roster. They inherited a two-win team, and both signed six-year contracts, removing the pressure to win right away. It seemed only natural they would go with a young roster the first season or two and lose a lot of games.

Then, they started signing players who will be in their 30s next season — six of them — and I criticized Lynch and Shanahan. Wrote they were trying to be a more respectable last-place team and foolishly not building for the future.

I was wrong.

These veteran signings show Lynch and Shanahan believe the Niners can make the playoffs next season. Not because Lynch and Shanahan think the Niners will be great. They’re not great. But, the schedule gives them an opportunity to make a run.

Look at the matchups.

We don’t know the official schedule yet — the league hasn’t released it — but we do know which teams the 49ers will face. Let’s go through them one by one, starting with the division opponents.

The Seattle Seahawks are an established playoff team and they’re always tough for the 49ers to beat. Ditto for next season.

But, the LA Rams are beatable. The Niners beat them twice last season. This year, they have no first-round pick, a brand new coaching staff and a 22-year-old quarterback — Jared Goff — whose passer rating was 63.6 in eight games last season. They also lost their best wide receiver, Kenny Britt — he signed with the Cleveland Browns last week.

The Rams will be bad next season.

The Arizona Cardinals might be bad, too. Carson Palmer is 37 — he’s fading — and they don’t have a quality backup quarterback. Drew Stanton is just a guy. Plus, their best defensive player, Calais Campbell, just signed with the 3-13 Jacksonville Jaguars because he feels they have more young talent and a brighter future than Arizona. Really.

That’s four potential wins right there between the Cardinals and Rams. The 49ers record could be 4-2 in the NFC West.

Which means their record will have to be 5-4 outside of their division to get to 9-7. Can we find five more winnable games on the 49ers schedule?

Yes. I’ll show you.

The 49ers will play all four teams in the AFC South — one of the weakest divisions in the NFL. The Houston Texans won this division the past two seasons with 9-7 records.

The Texans have a good defense, but their offense is terrible — it ranked 29th out of 32 teams last season. And they just dumped Brock Osweiler. Gave the Browns a second-round pick to take him off their hands. They have no quarterback.


The Indianapolis Colts have a quarterback — Andrew Luck — and he’s terrific. But they can’t protect him. Their offensive line is terrible. And their defense ranked 30th last season.


The Tennessee Titans also have a terrific quarterback — Marcus Mariota. But, he’s coming off a fractured fibula.


And the Jaguars are beatable, too. They’re the most beatable. Their quarterback — Blake Bortles — has thrown 51 interceptions in 45 games as their starter. He’s bad.

So far I count eight winnable games on the 49ers schedule, and I still have six games to go.

Four will be against the NFC East teams — the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys and Giants are playoff teams — they probably will defeat the 49ers — but the Redskins lost their offensive coordinator and both of their starting wide receivers, and they fired their general manager. They’re in chaos.

Winnable game.

The Eagles finished fourth in this division last season. They added a couple of wide receivers this offseason, including Torrey Smith, but he isn’t good anymore. We know that.

Winnable game.

That’s 10 so far.

The final two opponents on the schedule are the Chicago Bears, who won only three times last season, and the Carolina Panthers, who won six times.

I count twelve winnable games.

I’m not saying the 49ers will win all 12. I’m not even saying they’ll win nine. I’m not making a prediction.

I’m saying the schedule presented the 49ers a shot to make the playoffs as a wild card team. And Lynch and Shanahan went all in. The schedule gave them daylight.

Why punt away a chance to make the playoffs when they can buy wins with veteran free agents this year and sign younger players next year? Call it the short-term and long-term approach to building the 49ers.

I didn’t realize Lynch and Shanahan could do both. I didn’t see the opening. They did. Good for them.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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