San Francisco 49ers: Which Remaining Games Present the Biggest Challenges?
Despite going 4-1 against playoff teams during the 2011 season, there was a sizable amount of speculation that a more difficult schedule would be the San Francisco 49ers' undoing in 2012.
As fate would have it, the NFL scheduled the defending NFC North Champion Green Bay Packers on the road in Week 1, directly followed by the home opener against the Detroit Lions, a wild-card team that won 10 games in 2012.
San Francisco responded by emerging victorious in both of these early tests, seemingly eager to prove that they aren't a one-hit wonder. After knocking off two playoff teams from last season in its first two games, it's become clear that Jim Harbaugh's squad can compete with anyone.
However, conventional wisdom would suggest that the 49ers will not remain undefeated over the course of a 16-game schedule (sorry, but somebody has to say it). With several 2011 playoff teams on the slate for the rest of the season, it's reasonable to see the team falling a few times on the way.
With these two big hurdles already out of the way, these are the five toughest challengers facing the 49ers over the remainder of the 2012 regular season.
5. Chicago Bears (Home, November 19)
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Perhaps I'm overrating the Bears a bit here, but I'm taking Thursday night's 23-10 loss to Green Bay with a grain of salt. The Packers were eager to avenge their Week 1 loss to San Francisco, and dropping to 0-2 at Lambeau would have been a devastating start.
Of course, the Bears could also be on the verge of imploding after Jay Cutler's verbal strip-down of tackle J'Marcus Webb on national television. Even more concerning is Cutler's own teammates criticizing his actions in the media following the game.
As with most things, though, a couple of wins would most likely blow the situation over in Chicago, and this team has more than enough talent to be a contender.
This game is the Monday Night Football matchup of Week 11, and it should live up to its placement on the card as the playoff race heats up.
4. Seattle Seahawks (Away, December 23)
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The 49ers also traveled to Seattle for Week 16 last year, only escaping on David Akers' late field goal in a 19-17 thriller.
The game was exactly what a late-season division rivalry should be: gritty and down-to-the-wire. The Seahawks are difficult to beat in Seattle, and this year's squad should be much better equipped than the 2011 version.
If the Seahawks are the 49ers' main threat in the NFC West race, this game could have major implications with only two games to go. I'd expect much of the same from last year, at least in terms of how the game shapes out.
The outcome, however, could go either way, especially if both teams actually do have the playoffs within sight.
3. New Orleans Saints (Away, November 25)
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We all remember the thrill of last year's wild finish in the NFC Divisional Playoff at Candlestick Park. Just watch Vernon Davis' catch one more time if you've somehow forgotten how great that 36-32 victory felt.
However, this game will take place across the country within the confines of the Superdome, where the Saints went 8-0 last season.
Don't let the 0-2 start fool you. This Saints team should be fully expected to get back on track before these teams meet in Week 12. Not to mention the Saints will carry a huge chip on their shoulder as they try to avenge a game that served as key evidence in the alleged bounty scandal.
The 49ers did win last season's playoff matchup in grand fashion, but this is still a major heavyweight bout. Calling this anything but a toss-up isn't giving it enough credit.
2. New England Patriots (Away, December 16)
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The Patriots represented the AFC in the Super Bowl last season, and are predicted by many to win the big game this year after reloading the defense.
If for nothing else, the Harbaugh-Belichick coaching matchup will be well worth the watch, but these teams should both be near the top of the standings by the time this game rolls around in Week 15.
A road contest during the Foxborough winter will be a big test for the 49ers, especially if the weather creates unfavorable field conditions. The Patriots' unique offensive style will also provide a interesting challenge for the 49ers defense.
These two teams could also meet again in the Super Bowl, which should provide a lot of anticipation for the Sunday night contest.
1. New York Giants (Home, October 14)
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The champion is still the champion until he's knocked off, or at least that's how the saying goes.
The Giants ended San Francisco's season in the NFC Championship Game last year, and the 49ers certainly haven't forgotten that fact. The game will once again take place at Candlestick Park, and revenge will be the overbearing theme of this Week 6 meeting.
This is the earliest matchup on this list, but these teams seem to match up too well for this to not rank as the biggest obstacle along the way. This is a rematch that is simply too personal to overlook.
The Giants are the defending Super Bowl champions, and Eli Manning displayed nothing but clutch performances last year. It's impossible to count this team out, which makes this the biggest potential pitfall in the 49ers' regular-season road.