It was not long ago that fans and pundits were worried, not only if the 49ers could return to the Super Bowl, but whether they would make the playoffs at all.
San Francisco then went on to lose a close game to the New Orleans Saints in Week 11 before rolling off three wins in a row including the victory over Seattle.
The 49ers' record now stands at 9-4 and their Week 14 win carried plenty of weight in determining what lies ahead for San Francisco with the playoffs in sight.
Great W for the 49ers. Needed not just for playoff picture but in the rivalry. Could be last time either team loses for a while.— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) December 9, 2013
In a way, Sunday's game meant more to the 49ers than it did for the Seahawks. Simply put, San Francisco had more riding on that particular matchup than Seattle.
It is safe to assume at this point that the Seahawks will win the NFC West and should—barring extreme setbacks—secure the No. 1 playoff seed and home-field advantage in the postseason.
Yet for the 49ers, this victory carried major implications. Taking a look at the NFC playoff picture from CBS Sports, one can note how San Francisco's hold on the second wild-card spot was so precarious given how teams like the Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers are still in the hunt.
Their Week 14 victory keeps the 49ers one game ahead of Arizona and one game ahead of either Dallas or Chicago, who shall face off with each other on Monday Night Football.
In addition, the Carolina Panthers' loss to the Saints on Sunday Night Football carries its own implications moving forward.
As such, let us take a look at the remainder of San Francisco's season and set up some potential playoff scenarios as the 2013 NFL regular season hits its final stretch.
If the Season Ended Today
The 49ers reaffirmed their grip on a wild-card spot with their Week 14 victory over Seattle. Carolina's loss to New Orleans also has some effect, although the Panthers own the tiebreaker having defeated the 49ers in Week 10.
Thus, San Francisco would enter the playoffs as the second Wild Card and would face the Eagles (8-5) in Philadelphia in the first round of the postseason. Carolina would travel to Detroit to take on the 7-6 Lions while Seattle and New Orleans would receive a first-round bye.
Philadelphia is 1-0 against the NFC West this season and is riding a five-game win streak. The 49ers are 1-0 against the NFC East.
Eagles leading Lions, increasing chances #49ers' path will go through Philadelphia -- a place they've never played in the postseason.— Phil Barber (@Skinny_Post) December 8, 2013
The 49ers last played the Eagles in 2011 and defeated Philadelphia 24-23.
That game, of course, was much different than anything both teams would expect if they matched up in the 2013 playoffs. San Francisco now has Colin Kaepernick under center and not Alex Smith. Chip Kelly holds the head coaching reigns for the Eagles instead of Andy Reid.
If this game came to fruition, the Eagles would take their ninth-leading scoring offense and put it up against the 49ers' third-ranked defense. On the flip side, San Francisco's 11th-ranked scoring offense would match up against Philadelphia's 13th-ranked defense.
Based on those numbers, that is a matchup that should play into the 49ers' hands. San Francisco employs the better defense and if the phrase defense wins championships is correct, the 49ers should be able to take this opening round of the playoffs.
The Remaining 2013 Season
The season does not end today, of course.
Instead, San Francisco will face three more teams to wrap up their 2013 regular-season campaign. First, they will travel to Tampa Bay to take on the 4-9 Buccaneers, who have won four of their last five games.
Despite a hot Tampa Bay team, it is hard to fathom the 49ers having any significant difficulties with the Buccaneers. While nothing in the NFL is guaranteed, San Francisco should walk away with a Week 15 victory.
The 49ers then follow up with a home game against the underachieving 3-10 Atlanta Falcons before traveling to Arizona to take on the Cardinals in the final week of the regular season.
Much like the aforementioned Tampa Bay matchup, it is hard to fathom San Francisco losing to the Falcons, who boast the 29th-ranked defense in the NFL.
San Francisco's Week 17 game in Arizona against the Cardinals should prove much tougher. The 49ers took the first game in the season series, having won back in Week 6. Yet traveling on the road to face an improved Cardinals team desperately clinging to playoff hopes could prove a challenge.
|Week||Opponent||Opp. Record||Div. Standing|
|15||@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers||4-9||3rd in NFC South|
|16||Atlanta Falcons||3-10||4th in NFC South|
|17||@ Arizona Cardinals||8-5||3rd in NFC West|
Yet Arizona has a pretty tough schedule to wrap up the season—traveling to Tennessee to take on the 5-8 Titans before heading up to Seattle to face the Seahawks in Week 16.
San Francisco would like nothing more than to see Arizona lose at least one of those next two games, which would put a larger buffer between it and the Cardinals even if the 49ers own the tiebreaker based on division records.
It is also worth noting the Cardinals hold the tiebreaker over the Panthers, which could shake things up if both teams wind up with identical regular-season records.
The NFC South Scenario
While the 49ers are surely more concerned with their own destiny, they should be keeping an eye upon what happens in the NFC South between Carolina and New Orleans.
Following the Saints' victory over the Panthers in Week 14, New Orleans has taken a step towards not only the division crown, but also as the potential No. 2 seed in the NFC—thus receiving a first-round bye.
What makes this more intriguing is that Carolina will host the Saints in Week 16 in what will prove to be a critical matchup, not just from the Saints and Panthers' perspectives, but also in light of the 49ers' postseason hopes.
At this point, San Francisco should hope that the Saints knock off the Panthers a second time, which would likely force Carolina's season record to 11-5—assuming the Panthers are able to defeat the 6-7 New York Jets and Falcons in Weeks 15 and 17 respectively.
This facet is backed up by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
If the aforementioned scenario happened and all other things being equal, the 49ers would climb to the No. 1 wild-card spot and would face off with the winner of the NFC North—the Detroit Lions if they maintain their hold on the division.
Of course, that matchup is pending what happens within the NFC North and is also influenced by whichever team wins the NFC East. A No. 1 wild-card seed would give San Francisco a better matchup in the playoffs, as argued by Eric Branch of SFGate.com.
The NFC Divisional Round
Let us assume a few things here. First, we have already stated the Seahawks and Saints get first-round byes. Then, let us assume that the 49ers defeat their opponent in the wild-card round. Finally, let us hope the Panthers get by whichever team they face in the opening round as well.
Carolina would have to travel to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in the second round of the playoffs while San Francisco would visit New Orleans.
Neither scenario looks promising for the visiting teams. Both the Saints and Seahawks are undefeated at home this season and enjoy tremendous home-field advantages.
Given the results of San Francisco's travels to both Seattle and New Orleans, it is safe to say the 49ers would probably have a better shot at winning against the Saints given how close they came to victory in their 23-20 loss in Week 11, per Branch.
Seattle possibly could—emphasizing could—come out flat after a first-round bye. Perhaps Carolina takes advantage of this. Even if the Seahawks were to win that possible matchup, the 49ers could at least hope the Panthers wear the Seahawks down, enough to be vulnerable in a potential NFC Championship Game.
For that to happen of course, the 49ers would have to get by the Saints if the aforementioned scenario took place. That would be no easy task.
It is possible, however.
As such, the stage could be set for an exhilarating NFC championship between San Francisco and Seattle. If the prediction stands that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle, as suggested by Tim Dahlberg of ABC Sports, it may be the best chance the 49ers have.
All of the aforementioned possibilities are speculation at best.
San Francisco still needs to close out the regular season and there are some tough matchups that lay ahead.
In addition, certain things need to transpire around the conference in order for the 49ers to have a best-case shot at the NFC championship.
Whatever the case may be, the 49ers are in much better shape after Week 14 and can look forward to facing off against some tough opponents in the postseason. They have the opportunity.
Now comes the tough part—taking it.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.