INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Minutes after his team had once again dispatched the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner walked to a podium, smiled and let out a loud sigh of relief.
As Week 8 games go, the Niners' dominant 31-14 victory against the Rams at SoFi Stadium was as close to a must-have game as there is. San Francisco was coming off back-to-back losses and had been throttled by the Kansas City Chiefs on its home field just a week earlier.
"Whew," Warner said. "Just having the most sour taste in your mouth after the way that we competed last Sunday against Kansas City, your back is against the wall. How are you gonna show up? How are you gonna respond and (we) obviously responded the right way."
Try as they might to remain steadfast in the one-game-at-a-time ethos NFL teams espouse every week, the Niners knew what a loss would mean. It would have dropped them to 3-5 for the second consecutive season as they entered the bye week, and worse, forced them to play do-or-die games nearly every week the rest of the year, just as they did in 2021.
While that worked out for the Niners on their way to the NFC Championship Game, the prospect of facing a similar uphill climb was anything but appealing, even if the Niners believe they should be better than their current 4-4.
"It's a lot different," tight end George Kittle said. "Going into a bye on a win, you really can't ask for anything better, especially given our situation, and I think we have dropped a couple early on that we probably shouldn't have. I wish we were sitting at 6-2 but 4-4 with three wins in the division, I'm OK with that."
Indeed, the Niners' up-and-down start has come with plenty of highs and lows. They've dropped winnable games to the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears that were there for the taking. They've been ravaged by injury again, losing starting quarterback Trey Lance (ankle) and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley (knee) to season-ending injuries, as well as many others to shorter-term ailments.
But, as has been the case multiple times in recent years, the Niners found the cure for what ails them in the Rams. Sunday's victory was the Niners' eighth in a row in the regular season against Los Angeles, a stat that would be far more satisfying for San Francisco if it didn't need the regular season caveat, having lost to their California rivals in the NFC title game last year.
With Sunday's win, the Niners improved to 3-0 in the NFC West, with two against the Rams and another against the division-leading Seattle Seahawks, who are a game ahead of the 49ers at 5-3. As Kittle pointed out, any disappointment at being 4-4 is offset quite a bit by the perfect mark in the division.
"That's huge," Warner said. "3-0 in the division in terms of playoff stuff down the line, being a veteran player now I know what that means. You don't want to drop four games to start the year, but at the same time, I think if we take in what we've learned from those four games and allow it to harden us and make us a better team then obviously we'll look back and be like 'Man, I'm happy that we took something from it.'"
Warner believes those lessons have already begun to form, something the Niners hope will carry over when they return from the bye. And though Kittle lamented having the bye now just as he feels like the team "figured something out," there's plenty of reason for the Niners to be happy to have the week off now.
The bye week should provide plenty of big-name reinforcements for the Niners. Among the big-name players expected to return from injury for the post-bye, Nov. 13 game against the Los Angeles Chargers: wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Jauan Jennings, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, cornerback Jason Verrett and running back Elijah Mitchell.
Defensive linemen Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw could also return soon and linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair won't be far behind. And the Niners got a big reinforcement in the form of recently acquired running back Christian McCaffrey, who became the first player in 17 years to throw for, run for and catch a touchdown in the same game in Sunday's victory over the Rams.
What's more, the Niners play six of their final nine games at Levi's Stadium and one of their "road" games will be in Mexico City against the Arizona Cardinals, where they should also have plenty of support.
"Going into the bye week 3-5 makes it a lot more depressing of a bye week," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "But 4-4, it's one game better, but it feels a hell of a lot better than 3-5 ... I feel that there's a couple things we’ve done the last few weeks where I feel that's going the right direction offensively. We’ve had to overcome some injuries on defense but to get this win right now, get into the bye, those guys have earned it.
"Hopefully they can get healthier, get some guys back and definitely put ourselves in a much better position to come back and try to make a run at this."