The San Francisco 49ers had the second-easiest schedule by record in the 2011 season. Only New England had it easier. The Niners capitalized with a 13-3 regular-season record and a strong playoff showing. That precipitated a 2012 schedule that features the Patriots, Packers, Saints, Giants, Lions—playoff teams all. Put another way, the top five quarterbacks in the NFL will get to face the formidable 49er defense.
It also has to be said that a team that many did not expect to do well in 2011 saw that prognostication in their TV schedule. There were only two nationally-televised games in 2011. In 2012, there will be five prime-time appearances: two on Sunday night, two on Monday Night Football as well as a Thursday appearance.
Three of the first four games are on the road, but there’s a midseason streak of three straight home games but four of the last six are on the road, with the last game being at home versus Arizona.
Sept. 9, 1:15 p.m. PT FOX
Prior to January 15, this appeared to be the last NFC Championship game. Alas, someone forgot to tell the Green Bay defense about the New York Giants and the deadly accuracy of Eli Manning, who led the G-Men to the Super Bowl win.
This was too easy for FOX network execs to slate—the best passer in the game against what many expect to be the league’s best defense; in Lambeau, Rodgers and Co. vs. Willis, J. Smith and Goldson.
That’s the draw, but the reality is that the Green Bay defense will have to step up considerably to stop a power running game featuring Frank Gore and Brandon Jacobs, not to mention the deep threat from Randy Moss.
49ers 24, Green Bay 20
Sept. 16, 5:20 PT, NBC
It will be the 49ers first appearance on Sunday night football, and it’s a rematch of the Handshake Bowl. It’s also Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, the game’s best receiver, in another matchup against the league’s best defense. Last year, Johnson had 113 yards but no TDs.
The Niners came away with five sacks and a thrilling, last-second 25-19 victory. The difference in this game is that the Lions will be outside the comfort of their own dome, on grass, trying to be sharp against an insane 49er crowd.
Not even close.
49ers 27-10 (The Niners will be ranked among the elite in various power rankings.)
Sept. 23, 10 a.m. PT, FOX
Ahh, to hope that Adrian Peterson returns: The game’s best RB versus a great run defense. Fox execs will be visiting Lourdes in the near future and dropping off five-gallon water bottles at the Viking training facilities—anything to facilitate a better matchup.
Many will be calling this a trap game. The Niners will be on the road, but the best of Christian Ponder cannot dispel the strong SF defensive line.
49ers 24, Vikings 10
Sept. 30, 10 a.m. PT, FOX
This should be a prime-time game if only for Fox to harp the chance that Tim Tebow gets to prove himself against the SF defense. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see Tebow having to out-run Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman or Aldon Smith?
Well, it will be promoted as such.
It will be hard-hitting game and perhaps the Niners, having to adjust to the East Coast clock, falter in the end.
Oct. 7, 1:15 p.m. PT, CBS
The second-half of a CBS double-header brings Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steve Johnson and C.J. Spiller into Candlestick Park for the first time since 2004. The Niners will do much to erase the memories devout fans have of the last time San Francisco played Buffalo, a 10-3 loss in 2008.
The term “desultory” now is permanently attached to that experience. This time the Niners have it all under control thanks to a ferocious pass rush.
49ers 31, Bills 6
Oct. 14, 1:15 p.m. PT, FOX
Eli Manning returns. The 49er fans will be calling for pain and punishment. But in two games last season in San Francisco, Eli removed any doubt as to his standing in the game. Toughness, improvisation and accuracy make him one of the game’s best QBs.
This is a game that says “revenge” but in reality the Giants, having played two extra weeks in January and with Lombardi Trophy in hand now must withstand heightened New York media scrutiny, find themselves wearing out. Who wouldn’t?
49ers 17, Giants 6
Oct. 18, 5:20 PT, NFL Network
The schedule maker does the 49ers no favors with this short-week preparation against a rising NFC West rival. The Niners last year had to make their Thursday appearance after a five-hour plane trip to Baltimore. The Seahawks in comparison get a virtual hop down from Seattle.
Alas, the Seahawks appear to be improving under Pete Carroll, but they are not the same on grass as they are on synthetic surfaces. The ‘Hawks could also have a new QB, and it remains to be seen if they can build a pass rush.
Their defense, however, is getting better, and by the end of 2011 it was one of the better in the league. Still, home field is everything in this matchup.
49ers 20, Seahawks 13
Oct. 29, 5:30 pm PT, ESPN
On this Monday night appearance in Glendale, the Cardinal fans will be stoked, not to mention over-marinated. John Kolb is long-forgotten as John Skelton makes this his team.
Last year the Niners did well to contain return ace Patrick Peterson. This year, not so much. And no team raises the ire not to mention the motivation levels of the Cards more than the 49ers.
Arizona 24, 49ers 17
Time to rest and relax.
Nov. 11, 1:15 pm PT, FOX
New coach Jeff Fisher, a one-time assistant with the 49ers back a long, long time ago, returns. Note that this Rams team will be more disciplined and better on defense. Fisher, like Pete Carroll, both has noted that the Niners defense kept them in many games last year. Both have done much to rebuild their defenses.
The issue for the Rams is someone to help quarterback Sam Bradford, who has been beat up since his rookie season in 2010. After a 10-day rest, however, this is not the game in which Bradford can expect to come out of with very little soreness.
49ers 27, Rams 13
Nov. 19, 5:30 PT, ESPN
The anonymity that coach Jim Harbaugh so craved last year (because it enabled him to promote team-first in everything) will be gone. National games bring more exposure for all fans, so people in El Paso will know intimate details of Patrick Willis and Alex Smith as well as all the key defensive starters on the Niners. They’ll even know the correct spelling of Colin Kaepernick.
Speaking of which, the Niners at this time will start bringing in Kaepernick to expand the offensive arsenal. That will help when dealing with a Bears defense that doesn’t like to run sideline to sideline. Brian Urlacher, needless to say, is slowing down.
And it doesn’t help that the Bears passing offense is ragged due to rather poor pass protection, and one thing that Jay Cutler doesn’t like is getting hit a lot by Aldon Smith. Who would?
49ers 28, Bears 10
Nov. 25, 1:15 PT, FOX
The Saints could be decimated at the start of the season by suspensions from the bounty scandal. They won’t have Sean Peyton to guide them. It could start ugly. But by Week 11, all things should be mended because there’s too much talent and too much offense on this team.
In the Superdome and its flat, fast artificial turf, no one beats the Saints. They still might be kicking themselves over their 2011 midseason loss in St. Louis that cost them home-field advantage in last season’s playoffs. Otherwise there’s another Lombardi Trophy riding up and down Bourbon Street.
Thus, by the start of the NFL’s third month, the Saints will be healthy and hungry and angry.
Saints 30, 49ers 10
Dec. 2, 10 am PT, FOX
Jeff Fisher works his magic. The improved Rams give their fans reason to cheer with a rousing home-field win. The Niners offense finds itself struggling when having to play from behind in domes. Pass protection is constricted by crowd noise because the tackles have to turn their heads to see, rather than hear, the snap.
Successive losses drop the 49ers lower in various power rankings but still leave them atop the NFC West. What’s also clear is that the NFC West is not a weak sister anymore.
Rams 20, Niners 10
Dec. 9, 1:05 pm PT, CBS
A breather game. There’s an old line about football; great teams are not great because they play to a high level of efficiency every time. Rather, they play well enough to win when it’s not their best efforts.
The 49ers are built on the power of a defense and special teams that make it difficult for opponents to rack up easy scores. The games are always close, which in turn means the offense doesn’t have to do a lot but just enough to pull out a victory.
This sounds like one of those games in which the Niners don’t seem capable of winning but they hate to lose even more. That and a stout defense stun the Dolphins into submission.
49ers 12, Dolphins 3
Dec. 16, 5:20 PT, NBC
Nothing like a December Sunday night game in balmy Massachusetts to fuel the holiday spirits. Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, not to mention schemes by Bill Belichick in Bob Kraft’s personal play yard going against a travel-weary Niner team.
It’s a game that NBC will hype so much their pre-Summer Olympic marketing will look like a baby food commercial in comparison. Let’s put it this way: Barring injuries to major players on either team, this will be a possible “Super Bowl” preview, at least it will in terms of what the thinking is at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Except that the 49ers don’t get the message.
Patriots 23, 49ers 9
Dec. 23, 1:15 PT, FOX
Ahh, those sneaky league schedule makers. Their touch is like a jackhammer at 6 a.m. on a spring morning. Last December, on this exact spot of the schedule, the Niners traveled to Seattle. The Seahawks had rejuvenated their playoff hopes on the running of Marshawn Lynch. A win over the rival Niners would help them get into the postseason.
And it all appeared to be possible, especially after a blocked punt set up Seattle with the go-ahead TD late in the fourth quarter. But Alex Smith hooked up with Michael Crabtree for a long gain, and eventual team MVP David Akers kicked another 40-yard-plus field goal to give the Niners the lead.
Then Larry Grant, subbing for Patrick Willis, strip-sacked quarterback Tarvaris Jackson as the ‘Hawks appeared to be en route to at least a chance for a game-winning field goal.
You don’t think Pete Carroll will let his team forget that? You think the Seahawks will not have this game in their sights? It could get ugly but most likely will be a nail-biter.
Seahawks 17, 49ers 16
Dec. 30, 1:15 pm PT, FOX
Ken Whisenhunt is a smart coach, but not so smart as to help Cardinal quarterback John Skelton when he gets flustered. Why would Skelton be flustered? Perhaps it’s because the 49er defense plays with a ferocity of ticked-off hornets, and the Niner offense decides to add some scores.
It’s an easy victory, the 49ers 11th of the season. It assures them of a home playoff game.
49ers 31, Cardinals 14
Final Record: 10-6
In his first two seasons, Jim Harbaugh compiles a 23-9 regular-season record. His biggest problem is not creating expectations but rather of cooling down those held by rabid fans clawing for a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
And with that the Niners head into the playoffs. A home playoff game ensures their chances for another divisional game, and it won’t be on the road.
The two best teams outside SF last year in the NFC, Green Bay and New Orleans, will not be as good. Teams have figured out that Green Bay has too many holes on defense and the Saints, with suspensions, have too much to overcome.
Thus it could be another divisional playoff game at home, probably versus Green Bay, before heading down to Atlanta or the NFC Championship game.