The San Francisco 49ers knew that the 2012 schedule was going to be much different than their 2011 slate. That’s what happens when you make the playoffs in the NFL. You get to play the other conference playoff teams. And it just so happens that on the AFC wheel this year brings the AFC East into the 49ers plans. That means Tom Brady.
The schedule is much tougher, but then the 49ers seem capable of handling it. There are no tough back-to-back stretches, such as last year’s Thursday night game in Baltimore. The 49ers face five top-notch quarterbacks, and three of them (Rodgers, Brady, Brees) will be playing against the tough Niner defense on their home fields.
That’s the way the schedule crumbles. Here’s a rundown of the 49ers 2012 schedule, from easiest to toughest.
The Niners will be coming off a Thursday night game at home against the Seahawks, which means 10 days to prepare for the Rams. New coach Jeff Fisher has a lot to fix in St. Louis, starting with wide receiver (Justin Blackmon is slated to be their first pick in the draft) and offensive line.
The former may make a difference, but the receivers may be open yet they won’t be getting the ball. Not when quarterback Sam Bradford is on his back. The Niners should romp in this game.
The Bills have Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steve Johnson and a host of other playmakers on offense. Other than Mario Williams, they have no playmakers on defense. Last year they gave up 27 points a game last year. The re-signed Johnson, one of the game’s rising wide receivers, but it remains to be seen if they can tackle anyone.
The Bills gave up more rushing TDs than all but two teams. That’s not a good sign against a power team playing at home.
The Dolphins make the long trip to the West Coast and new coach Joe Philbin will find a team that he would like to model. The Dolphins in 2011 had the sixth best defense in the league. That’s a start.
Many experts have the Dolphins drafting a quarterback in the first round. Rookie QBs on the road against the NFL’s best defense does not make for good things.
I doubt Adrian Peterson will be back. He might, but do you think the Viking coaching staff will get very excited about using the premier running back who is fresh off an ACL injury very much against a great run defense?
That puts the onus on Christian Ponder, whose offensive line is porous at best.
I’m a big believer that the NFC West is improving and improving rapidly. The days of this being the NFL’s weakest division are over. The Rams remain the weakest of the four, but both Arizona and Seattle are building better defenses.
What’s more, Arizona has Larry Fitzgerald, who I feel is the best receiver in the NFL, and the ‘Hawks have Marshawn Lynch, a very good power runner.
That said, this game is much easier when the Seahawks travel south. Playing in CenturyLink Field, widely regarded as the loudest stadium in the NFL, is like a 10 point advantage. This game is very different compared to the effort needed in Pacific Northwest in December.
The is Game 16, and by then it all may be settled—the division race and even pairings in the playoffs. If that’s the case, then this might be the easiest game of them all. But as I said earlier, the NFC West is improving and the Cardinals may be in the playoff hunt.
For that matter, the Niners may have a stake in getting a first-round buy and home-field in the first playoff game, which is what they faced last year in the last game in St. Louis. If that’s the case, then this game gets more difficult, which is why it’s ranked where it is.
If the Rams at home is the Niners’ easiest, what makes this game so different? Simple, Jeff Fisher and a dome.
Remember, the Niners are an elite team now. They have targets on their backs. Beating them can make a team’s season, especially one in which a first-year coach has to transform a franchise into a viable contender.
In short, the Rams will be jacked and the crowd will be loud. That makes it difficult on Alex Smith and the offensive line.
I know Matthew Stafford threw for more than 5,000 yards last year, and yet I still haven’t bought into him being that good. I just remember his missed throws and his throwaway for intentional grounding in the end zone last year that accounted for a safety.
Put some pressure on him, his accuracy goes down (but then, that’s true for most QBs). Make him throw on the move and his accuracy goes down, which is not something that you can say about Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and even Phillip Rivers, to name three.
A Monday night game in Arizona? It might be declared a state holiday. The event is that rare. Normally, the Cardinals give the Niners some problems but by and large the Niners win due to a better defense, special teams and, especially, quarterback.
But this will be a premier game for the Cardinals, who view the Niners are their biggest rival. This will be an emotional, tough game. Coach Ken Whisenhunt will have them ready.
Playing in New Jersey is never easy. The Niners get a break in that the game comes early in the schedule before the winter winds make passing a guessing game.
The thing about a game like this is that the Niners have to travel east, which effectively costs them a day. And it’s at 10 a.m. West Coast time. The body has a hard time adjusting, to say the least.
What may make a difference is that the week prior the Niners play in Minnesota. It seems a possibility that the Niners may just stay in Ohio like they did last year instead of yo-yoing across the country.
At least the Niners didn’t have to travel to New York for two games in Jersey. That said, Tom Coughlin teams play the Niners well. They’re built on similar lines—strong defensive lines, good running and some big-play people on offense.
This will be a rematch game, so both teams will be keyed up. It doesn’t make it easier that Eli Manning has had very good success in San Francisco.
CenturyLink (formerly Qwest Stadium) is hell. That’s the best way to describe what it is like to play there in December. The Niners did last year, with playoff ramifications for both teams. That the Niners came away with a come-from-behind win in tough conditions proved their mettle.
Expect very similar circumstances this year. It won’t be easy.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If the Saints had a playoff home game in the playoffs, they would have made the Super Bowl. In the Superdome they’re like 10 percent faster, stronger and bigger.
Last year, they closed out with four straight games in domes before coming to San Francisco for the divisional playoff game. One was at Minnesota and the last three were in New Orleans. The Saints points totals in those four dome games: 42, 45, 45 and 45.
On turf, flat field, no wind, they’re just plain awesome.
The thing about this game is that if it was in San Francisco it would rank about No. 10 in difficulty. I say that because the Niners have huge advantages (run game vs. Packer defense; special teams) over the Packers. But playing in Lambeau Field on the first week, it’s not going to be easy.
This game is going to have the feel and intensity of a playoff game. The Packers want to erase the bad taste about the way the 2011 season ended. The Niner want to prove themselves against the one opponent many felt should have played in the NFC Championship game.
Playing Tom Brady in December on his home field is not an easy task. Playing Bill Belichick is not easy. It’s a late Sunday game, national TV. Lots of time for the Pats fans to marinate as it were.
What makes this game the most difficult in my mind is that Belichick perhaps is the best coach at adapting his team to the needs of the season. He adjusts according to health and strength of roster, and he can play wide open or he can play conservative.
That's why this is the schedule's toughest.
Of course, injuries, coaching changes, freak events could all change the character and events to follow in the 2012 NFL schedule. And thus a list like this could become moot rather quick. But that’s why we watch.