Should 49ers worry about winning final two weeks?

For playoffs sake, a 9-7 finish would mean the same thing as 11-5 for the 49ers this season. But for posterity's sake, 11-5 or 10-6 sure would look a lot better. So how do the 49ers play it the next few weeks when compiling a better record the rest of the way means nothing to their playoffs hopes? Well, let's just say that, for once, winning isn't necessarily the primary objective. "It weighs in less than playing in the playoffs with a healthy team," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said Wednesday.

The Niners, who have been battling injuries all season, would rather be healthy than sorry come playoff time. That means some of those individuals you've seen playing hurt the past two months probably will be enjoying the view from the sidelines Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals and the Dec. 30 season finale at St. Louis.

"Winning these last two games at all costs - and when I say all costs, I'm talking about playing guys that shouldn't play or are gimpy - it's not worth having an 11-5 record, it's not," Mariucci said. "As much as we all would love to have that follow us around, an 11-win season and that sort of thing, the most important thing is this team gets very ready for that playoff game for all the obvious reasons."

The Niners will host a wild-card team in the first round of the playoffs on the first weekend of January. At this point, it appears likely that team will be the New Orleans Saints and - since the Niners end the season on a Monday night - it's also more than likely they'll be playing on Sunday, Jan. 5, rather than the day before.

The Niners, who two weeks ago clinched their NFL-record 17th NFC West championship since the 1970 AFC-NFC merger, never have entered the playoffs with less than 10 victories since their Super Bowl era began in 1981.

That doesn't mean they will this year. The last time the Niners played a meaningless game at the end of the season after their playoff positioning already was etched in stone, they looked - and performed - like a team that had nothing to play for.

With a chance to finish 14-2 in 1997, Mariucci's first year as coach, the Niners finished the season with a Sunday night game at Seattle in which they rested several starters and played others only sparingly. The Niners were blasted 38-9 by the Seahawks, but they already had clinched homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. That was the last year San Francisco made it to the NFC championship game.

"We would have felt really good about going 14-2 that year," Mariucci said. "But it wasn't the most important thing. And we even had a (first-round) bye that year. The most important thing was to keep some players healthy."

Since the Niners still are three Sundays away from their playoff opener, Mariucci said the team will take a more standard approach against Arizona. But all bets are off for the St. Louis game, which probably will look a lot like an exhibition game on the San Francisco side of the ball.

"The most important thing for us here is that first playoff game," Mariucci said. "However, we look at this short week against Arizona as an important game to play, to win, but we won't go crazy and play everyone that's limping. We will try and use good discretion as to who plays and how much they'll play. The Ram game may be a different story, but this game is a little more regular-season mode and finding some guys healthy enough to help us win the game. We're going to try and win this game. We won't be foolish, but we'll play the guys who are capable of playing"


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