Kawakami: The 49ers are built for late-season runs, and they might be starting another

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Most weeks, Nick Bosa is the guy Kyle Shanahan picks to address the entire team the night before games. It’s not because Bosa is a thundering orator. The exact opposite, really. It’s not because he seeks the spotlight, microphone or recognition. He’s not even one of the six team captains.

So why is Bosa’s quiet, wry voice so important so often to this franchise? It’s because what he says matters. It’s because he’s one of the best players in the league, it’s because he picks his spots, and it’s because, more than anything, Bosa is a habitual truth-teller. He’s good enough and well-paid enough not to care about PR spin or football generalities. He’s smart enough to see through that kind of stuff and avoid it at all costs.

Which is why I especially wanted to talk to Bosa after the 49ers’ solid-as-can-be 27-14 victory over the Buccaneers at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. It was the 49ers’ second consecutive victory after their desultory three-game losing streak, which came after opening the season 5-0. Up, down, back up again, 7-3 now, leading … where?

And when Bosa smiled as he saw a few of us walking up to his locker, I knew he had something to say that I’m sure his teammates had already heard and fully absorbed.

“Yeah, I think we’re finding ways to win in different ways,” Bosa said when I asked if he thinks the team is beginning to put it all together. “Obviously, we didn’t want to lose three in a row, but you learn a lot from that.”

Then Bosa paused a bit for emphasis, before adding his own finishing kick:

“And November’s when s— really starts. We know that.”

There ya go. There’s the message, and it’s a very appropriate one as the 49ers sit at 2-0 in November and are set to start the most important stretch of the season — a short turnaround to a Thanksgiving night game against the NFC West rival Seahawks, at Philadelphia, then back in Levi’s to play the Seahawks again. By the end of this run, the 49ers almost certainly will know if they’re in the driver’s seat to win the division and if they have a real shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff tournament.

There was also more to Bosa’s message: The 49ers are built for this kind of moment and have proven it over and over the last few years. Maybe they’re a better fit this season than they’ve ever been, actually, thanks to Brock Purdy’s ascension. Which makes it important that they’ve been in similar situations in each of the last two seasons — actually substantially worse — and romped through November and December to get to the playoffs and then deep in the playoffs.

This is who the 49ers have been. This is who they still are. At least, that’s what Bosa’s saying, and it’s usually smart to listen to him.

“You think you’re ready when the season starts — like 5-0,” Bosa said. “But you have to go through stuff to really become the team you want to be. I think the veterans in here, we have a lot of ’em. We know that later in the year is when we’ve got to turn it on.”

This is now officially later in the year. The next three games won’t guarantee the 49ers any kind of playoff success, of course. There could be key injuries, there could be more stumbles. But this is a team that prides itself on turning it on when it has to be turned on, and here they are.

“We can’t achieve our goals or win the Super Bowl in October,” Arik Armstead said. “We want to be playing our best football in November, December and January.”

This also is a tradition for the 49ers in the Kyle Shanahan era. Sunday’s victory lifted their cumulative regular-season record in November, December and January to 34-20. Their record in September and October: 25-29. There are obviously some mitigating factors — the 0-9 start with the brutal roster Shanahan inherited in 2017, the 5-0 surge to the finish line after the Jimmy Garoppolo trade that season, the 2-7 injury-fueled collapse in 2020, when they spent December shipped to Arizona due to Santa Clara pandemic protocols.

But there’s also the 7-2 sprint to finish 2021 and last season’s spectacular 10-0 finish. Something about this team doesn’t hit full engine power until there’s a chill in the air and playoff berths on the line.

“I always expect us to look better as it goes than we do in the beginning,” said Shanahan, pointing out that it’s hard to be ready for full-tilt physicality with the toned-down offseason and training-camp rules. “Especially running the ball and tackling and everything, you kind of evolve as it goes.”

Does he think the 49ers are playing their best now?

“Uhh, no,” Shanahan said. “I don’t think so.”

They had some issues on Sunday, to be sure. And Shanahan was a bit somber after the game, anyway, surely tied to just hearing the news that Pro Bowl safety Talanoa Hufanga likely tore his ACL in the third quarter. Also, the 49ers’ offense produced some big plays but sputtered a bit early on and late in the game when it was time to run out the clock.

But with rookie Ji’Ayir Brown (an interception and big pass breakup on fourth down) jumping into Hufanga’s spot and immediately making plays, the 49ers’ defense was consistent all game against an inferior opponent, pressuring the Buccaneers into two turnovers and collecting four sacks of Baker Mayfield. They’re going to face better offenses and better teams in the near future and down the road in the playoffs, but the 49ers’ defense definitely is bouncing back from below-standard performances against Minnesota and Cincinnati last month.

And the offense is only getting better. Because Purdy is only getting better. The quick summary: He was 21 for 25 for 333 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, racking up a perfect 158.3 passer rating, only the second one in 49ers history (a guy named Joe Montana had the other).

“Perfect game? Wow,” Bosa said of Purdy. “I’m never surprised anymore with him. He’s as good as it gets.”

This is only Purdy’s second season with the 49ers. Which means it’s only his second stretch run. But after his brief slump (and that slump was only really a few throws in three fourth quarters) during the 49ers’ losing streak, Purdy has come back better than ever. Hitting deeper throws than ever, including a 76-yard TD strike to Brandon Aiyuk. And sounding more focused than ever, now several weeks removed from those three losses.

“I was more upset with not, like, that we were complacent or anything but almost like we were just going to walk into the game and it’s going to be given to us in a sense,” Purdy said of the mood during the losing run. “We’ve gotta go take it. We’ve gotta go earn it. Every single game, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. … We’re sorta getting back to that, including myself, every drive, every play, that I can be the guy for this team and I have to own it every single week at practice, at meetings, wherever it might be.”

This is how the 49ers think and play in November and December. This is what they’re built to do. It’s all in front of them, and this is what they’ve been expecting all along.

(Photo: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

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