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A Potential Week 17 Battle Between Rookie QBs Trey Lance, Davis Mills

The San Francisco 49ers look to cement their way into a postseason spot in Week 17 with a win over the Houston Texans (accompanied by a New Orleans Saints loss). Meanwhile, Houston has a different plan as they look to rattle off their third-straight victory, their longest winning streak since 2018, and play spoiler to the 49ers postseason hopes. Houston is coming off of an upset victory over the once-playoff bound Los Angeles Chargers despite having more than 20 players on their Reserve/COVID-19 list. The victory came on the heels of a strong outing from rookie quarterback Davis Mills and veteran running back Rex Burkhead.

The 49ers could be depending on a rookie of their own under center with heavy playoff implications on the line on Sunday. For this week's Four Downs, Texans reporter Deepi Sidhu joined to break down several storylines to follow in the Week 17 matchup.

1st Down: Biggest Takeaway from Week 16

@KeianaMartinTV: The Turnover Battle Dictates San Francisco's Success

It is in fact true that numbers don't lie, and it certainly is evident in San Francisco's success (and lack thereof) in the turnover battle. The 49ers are a perfect 7-0 this season when an interception is not thrown. On the contrary, they're just 1-7 when the signal caller throws at least one pick.

Coughing up the ball has played a significant factor in the 49ers outcomes this season.

Last week, the Titans came up with two turnovers and managed to score seven points off those plays – a costly series considering San Francisco fell to Tennessee by three points.

Conversely, after giving up the ball four times to the Pittsburgh Steelers the week prior, San Francisco's defense failed to show up in the takeaways department.

With so much on the line heading into the final two games of the season, ball security will be critical for San Francisco's offense – that goes for their entire group of offensive skill players and whoever will be under center on Sunday. With questions surrounding Jimmy Garoppolo's (thumb) availability, the 49ers will hope Trey Lance's improvements in decision making and accuracy will translate to the field in his (potential) second-career start.

@DeepSlant: The Texans are Playing Much Better than Their Record

The biggest takeaway was that the Houston Texans found a way to win for the second week in a row under a first-year head coach in David Culley. Down 10 starters and with a rookie quarterback missing his No. 1 target in Brandin Cooks, plus a defense facing a prolific Chargers offense, this team came up with big plays when it mattered most. 

Davis Mills, in his ninth start, completed 21-of-27 passes (77.8 percent) for 254 yards, two touchdowns and a 130.6 passer rating, the second-highest rating of his career. The offensive line was without starters Tytus Howard and Justin Britt but paved the way for the best rushing performance of the season. The offense ran the ball and gained 189 net yards rushing, led by Rex Burkhead who rushed for 149 yards on 22 carries and scored two touchdowns.

The defense had three takeaways, including a fourth-quarter pick-six by Tavierre Thomas, named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. Defensive back Jonathan Owens, in his second-career start, finished with two takeaways on defense, an interception and a fumble recovery.

The Week 16 performance was one where a lot of different players, including backups, stepped up against a playoff-caliber team to prove they are better than their record.

2nd Down: How Do You Assess the Quarterback Position Heading into Week 17?

@KeianaMartinTV: 49ers QB(s) Should be Well Equipped

Since training camp, the 49ers have stood firm on the quarterback who best gives San Francisco a chance to win will start. Through essentially 16 weeks, that has been Garoppolo. But things could change with health being a concern for the veteran heading into Sunday. Garoppolo sustained a Grade 3 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb which has put his start on Sunday in doubt. Should Garoppolo be unable to dress, the 49ers will look to their No. 3 overall pick to make his second-career start under center.

While stepping in for Garoppolo in Week 5, who was dealing with a calf injury, Lance finished his first start against the Arizona Cardinals completing 15-of-29 passing for 192 yards and an interception, which was thrown early in the game. He also added 16 rushes for 89 yards and a near-goal line rushing score.

While making his first start, Lance played better as the game progressed. And according to 49ers coaches and players, he's done the same in practice.

The 49ers have noted their confidence in Lance, in particular, how he's performed in practice over the last few weeks. Acknowledging his improved accuracy and decision making, Lance appears to understandably be more comfortable in the 49ers offense than he was 12 weeks prior.

He has had a full week of practice with the first-team offense that includes a cast of playmakers who weren't on the field with him in the first half of the season (namely George Kittle and Jeff Wilson Jr.).

On Friday, Lance discussed learning from his mistakes in his earlier appearances. And entering Sunday well equipped with a game plan and supporting cast should bode well for whomever the 49ers have starting under center on Sunday.

@DeepSlant: Davis Mills' Growth in Confidence

Davis Mills has shown tremendous growth and improvement over the course of his rookie season. In Week 2, he saw his first action when he entered the game for an injured Tyrod Taylor. Mills would go on to start the next six games while Taylor was on IR, but the offense struggled. Mills had his best performance against the New England Patriots in Week 5 when he threw three touchdown passes, but then went two games without any touchdown drives. There were flashes of talent, but Mills showed inconsistency and the offense as a whole struggled, unable to get the run game going.

Fast forward to a month later, Mills earns the starting role over Taylor for the rest of the season. In his last three starts, Mills has thrown five touchdowns and one interception, a marked improvement from his previous six starts where he threw six touchdowns and seven interceptions. Mills said his improvement is a combination of a lot of different factors: recognizing blitzes and protections, getting rid of the ball quicker and improved decision-making during his time on the bench behind the veteran Taylor. Last week, Mills had one of his best games yet, despite not having Cooks. He showed confidence in his throws, protected the ball and led the offense on two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter in a dominant performance.

3rd Down: What is an Area of Concern Heading into Sunday?

@KeianaMartinTV: 49ers Cornerbacks

San Francisco's cornerback situation has been a lingering issue since the loss of Jason Verrett in Week 1. The unit was hit hard again following a high-ankle sprain for Emmanuel Moseley in Week 13, which forced the unit to rely on their young group of corners to guard some elite talent. Ambry Thomas has been thrust into a starting role and has seen his share of ups and downs, but the 49ers remain confident in the rookie's ability to learn from his mistakes and continue to get better with quality reps.

"Ambry has been matched up with some of the top receivers in the NFL and he's gotten better and better each week," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said this week. "I see the confidence building in him. He was able to make some plays against some of the top guys and his confidence is still building. He's still learning. He's still growing, but I think he's progressing in the right direction."

He and fellow corner Josh Norman will have another tall task with wide receiver Brandin Cooks (COVID-19) returning to the lineup on Sunday. Thomas showed growth with a big pass breakup on a would-be touchdown against Tennessee's A.J. Brown last week. His next test will be to limit an ascending Texans offense to help secure his first-career playoff berth.

@DeepSlant: Texans Offensive Line

Facing that 49ers defensive front will be a big area of concern. Between Fred Warner and Nick Bosa, the offensive line, which has been banged up all year, will have a long day ahead of them. Mills will need to continue to protect the ball and the run game will have to fight for every yard it gets, especially facing Bosa who leads all NFL players in TFLs.

4th Down: An Underappreciated Position Group that Could be a Difference Maker on Sunday

@KeianaMartinTV: Running Backs

San Francisco received some encouraging news this week with the potential return of running back Elijah Mitchell. The sixth-round pick missed three games while dealing with a knee injury, and per head coach Kyle Shanahan, he's coming off of one of his best practices of the week on Thursday.

He will add to San Francisco's rushing offense that held up admirably without him, which ranks seventh in the league by averaging over 123 yards per game. It's a favorable matchup for San Francisco as Houston's defense is giving up over 141 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry, the 27th-worst mark in the league.

Mitchell's return comes at an opportune time to help the 49ers get back on track along with (potentially) Lance and his rushing abilities. Lance will also benefit from having Mitchell back in the mix to help open up play-action passing and RPO's for the rookie QB.

Oh, and don't forget about Deebo Samuel, who can attack you in the air and on the ground, too.

@DeepSlant: Special Teams

The Texans special teams unit has really shined this season. Punter Cameron Johnston ranks fifth in the NFL, punting 43.4 percent of his punts inside of the 20 yard line. Ka'imi Fairbairn extends the field-goal target line each week for the offense. In Week 14, he connected on a career-long 61-yard field goal. A week later in Jacksonville, he successfully made three field goals, including two from over 50 yards.

And the returners have really helped give the Texans good field position, Desmond King on punt returns and Tremon Smith on kickoffs. Smith scored on a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown two weeks ago and was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. The Texans special teams unit has really been a big part of the wins this season.

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