Best, Worst-Case Scenarios for a San Francisco 49ers Playoff Run

Dylan DeSimoneCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2013

Best, Worst-Case Scenarios for a San Francisco 49ers Playoff Run

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    Only three games remaining in the 2013 regular season and it's looking like the San Francisco 49ers are going to enter a third straight postseason under coach Jim Harbaugh.

    The last two seasons, the 49ers were portrayed as the take-no-prisoners bad boy of the NFC, locking up first-round byes and playing at their home of Candlestick Park in three of four playoff games (not including the Super Bowl). This year, they've been exposed and will be forced to take the scenic route.  

    Describing what San Francisco must do, 49ers beat writer Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News  sums it up best:

    Last 2 playoffs, 49ers were good regular-season team then got upset by teams that got hot late. They have to be the get-hot team this year.

    — Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) November 18, 2013

    If the 49ers prove that they're that same inconsistent, slow-to-start team they were during the regular season, they're not going to make it too far. 

    Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has to become that daring, multidimensional threat he was in his debut a year ago, utilizing not only the full capacity of his skill set, but also the entire arsenal provided to him on offense. If No. 7 gets hot for the 49ers, all bets are off. This team will be capable of anything again.

    The defense is elite, the special teams is outstanding and the offense is loaded, just waiting to pop. But even if it finally does, the road traveled will not be an easy one. 

    For a complete look at the San Francisco 49ers' road to the Super Bowl, including possible playoff scenarios, ways they can luck out and things the team must watch out for, proceed through the following. 

How the 49ers Can Clinch Playoffs in Week 15

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    First and foremost, the 49ers need to punch their ticket to the tournament.

    It’s true they have the third-easiest remaining schedule, via Bill Williamson of ESPN, but there are no sure things in the NFL. Weird things happen all the time, in fact.

    So, San Francisco has to continue to build on the momentum from the Seattle Seahawks game and keep plugging away, especially with an opportunity this weekend. In Week 15, they travel to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa to play the Buccaneers.

    If they do their part and come away with a road win before returning home the following week, there’s a chance they lock up a playoff spot. Here are two ways the 49ers can solidify their slot in the postseason.

     

    Scenario 1

    San Francisco wins at Tampa Bay, plus the Arizona Cardinals lose to the Tennessee Titans and the Philadelphia Eagles lose or tie at the Minnesota Vikings.

     

    Scenario 2

    San Francisco wins, plus an Arizona loss and a Dallas Cowboys loss or tie to the Green Bay Packers.

    The 49ers (9-4) are tied with the Carolina Panthers (9-4), but lose the tiebreaker and thus the five seed since they came up short in their head-to-head in Week 10.

    The Panthers also host the New York Jets this Sunday, and if Gang Green somehow pulled off an upset (highly unlikely), then San Francisco would then move to the five seed and Carolina would bump down to the six.

    So, this weekend the 49ers can secure a playoff slot and fight for higher seeding, hoping some of their NFC foes drop games as well.

    On the other hand, if the Seattle Seahawks win against the New York Giants and the 49ers lose or tie the Buccaneers, then Seattle will clinch the NFC West and a first-round bye. If the New Orleans Saints lose in addition to that, then Seattle will also clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. 

    This Sunday has massive playoff implications.

    Anything can happen, but the @49ers are shaping up to be a nightmare 6-seed for winner of NFC East or North to host.

    — Rich Eisen (@richeisen) December 9, 2013

     

    49ers want these teams to lose: Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles

    49ers want these teams to win: New Orleans Saints

Worst-Case Scenario

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    Now, if the 49ers secure a playoff spot, there really is no worst-case scenario as far as the Wild Card Round goes.

    San Francisco would be favorites over virtually every team they’d possibly face. By this point, the Niners and Panthers can’t create enough separation in the seeding between now and the end of the regular season where they’d face each other, and that’s the only Wild Card match they’d dread.

    So, fortunately, it won’t happen.

    Looking at the landscape, the most likely scenario is a road trip to Philadelphia to take on quarterback Nick Foles and the Eagles. Other than that, it’s looking like it could be the Detroit Lions, who are 0-2 versus the Niners since Jim Harbaugh took over 2011.

    Neither of these teams really poses a threat, even on their own turf.

    That being said, the worst-case scenario is not what team they play in the Wild Card, but what seed the 49ers enter the postseason as.

    NFC Playoff Picture, after Week 14: 1. Seahawks 2. Saints 3. Eagles 4. Lions 5. Panthers 6. 49ers

    — FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) December 10, 2013

    What we do know is, the worst thing that could happen for the 49ers is they enter as the sixth seed and the Seahawks retain the top seed in the NFC. That means, even if the 49ers win in the Wild Card, they’re traveling to CenturyLink Field to play a fresh Seahawks team that will no doubt be chomping at the bit.

    Could Seattle dream up a better scenario? It’s doubtful.

    So, I repeat, the worst-case scenario is matching up with the Seahawks when it comes to playoff seeding. A No. 1 vs. a No. 6 or a No. 2 vs. a No. 5: The 49ers do not want to line up with them. If they’re going to have to play Seattle, let it be in a potential NFC title game when the Seahawks have already taken hits.

    A rested Seattle team at home in the divisional round is perhaps the hardest matchup the 49ers could have. You have to anticipate that stadium being at its loudest, paralyzing the San Francisco offense, which has struggled for a good duration of the year.

    Visitors just don’t survive the deafening environment.

    137.6 is a new @gwrnews record. #LOUDER pic.twitter.com/uAcTQj6WEF

    — Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 3, 2013

Best-Case Scenario

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Ideally, New Orleans goes on a run and Seattle gets kicked from the top seed in the NFC.

    So, even if the 49ers remain the sixth seed because the Panthers are hot, they won’t play Seattle. Though, that is the most unlikely scenario since the ‘Hawks would have to lose a couple games, too, and that probably isn’t happening. The 49ers are going to have to claw their way to best position themselves for the postseason.

    It is 100 percent on them to finish strong down the stretch and not only secure a spot in the playoffs, but do their best to get out of the condemning sixth spot. The fifth is as high as they can go and would ensure they don’t play Seattle if they advance from the Wild Card Round.

    They’ll have to defeat the Buccaneers, Falcons and emerge victorious in a potentially huge Week 17 finale at the Arizona Cardinals.

    While challenging, these are all winnable games. Let’s say the 49ers do wind up going 3-0 and finish 12-4 on the season. That’s a solid mark. Additionally, Carolina either loses to the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints or the Atlanta Falcons somewhere between Weeks 15-17, giving the 49ers that highly coveted fifth slot.

    This is a very realistic scenario.

    Furthermore, with the Panthers likely to defeat either the Detroit Lions or Chicago Bears in the Wild Card, they’d play Seattle as a sixth seed. So, if the 49ers go 3-0 and the Panthers go 2-1 or worse, then San Francisco will lock up the fifth spot and avoid Seattle in potential divisional showdown.

    So if the NFC North and NFC East teams finish with the worst records, as they are set to do, and Carolina drops just one, the 49ers would theoretically get the Saints at the Superdome in a potential divisional matchup, which is a game they’d much rather have.

    Here is where it gets better…

Seattle Gets Eliminated?

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    Hey, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks were in the postseason last year and wound up getting sent home in Round 2.

    It's not like this team is the new, hot thing and they’re automatically a lock to win it. Last year, they were healthier on both sides of the ball, Wilson was an unknown that snuck up on the league and they had an easier postseason lineup.

    So, don't forget, games still have to be played, and anything can happen.

    Pundits also need to understand that, year in and year out, the best regular-season team rarely takes home the gold. Pure and simple. The playoffs are a whole different ballgame, or else Peyton Manning would be a five-time Super Bowl champion quarterback by now and his baby bro would have no rings instead of one for each hand.

    The hot team is always better than the one that’s running on E and on the verge of getting figured out.

    The key to the @Panthers' 8-0 run? Cam Newton's efficient play. Check out his numbers in this #MAGraphic pic.twitter.com/HJmxND8hrY

    — ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) December 9, 2013

    Moreover, if the ‘Hawks were to be upset at home in the divisional round, it’d likely be perceived as a choke job rather than getting beat. Nobody should beat them at CenturyLink Field. But outside the 49ers, the team most likely to pull it off would be the one we discussed seeing them as a No. 6, which is the Carolina Panthers.

    Like the 49ers and Seahawks, the Panthers are the new three-phase team that prides itself on toughness.

    With Cam Newton and that rushing attack, coupled with their defense, you have to admit, Carolina has as good a chance as any. They match up the way you'd like. So if the 49ers gain the fifth seed, they also position the Panthers to potentially knock the Seahawks out of the tournament, clearing their road to the Super Bowl.

    That way, San Francisco sees Carolina in a potential NFC title game, which is a matchup they'd prefer if they get past Detroit or Philadelphia and New Orleans.  

Potential Roadblocks

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    Riding a hot streak right now are the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals (8-5), pulling out five wins in their past six games. While they seem far apart, the Cards are only one game behind the 49ers in the division. This means positioning can change in the span of a weekend.

    San Francisco must be cautious, keep winning and circle the Week 17 matchup in Glendale.

    It should be noted that the Cardinals did lose budding star free safety and slot corner Tyrann Mathieu for the season with a double-ligament tear in his knee. Their remaining schedule is also quite difficult. After the Tennessee Titans in Week 15, they’ve got at Seattle and versus San Francisco to close out the season.

    Nevertheless, their defense is keeping them in every game and they’re finding a way to get point production out of their wideouts.

    Since wk 8, AZ has won 5 of 6. In that span @azcardinals defense is #1 in NFL in yds allowed/gm (263.7) & 4th in pts allowed/gm (16)

    — MarkDalton (@CardsMarkD) December 10, 2013

    With quarterback Aaron Rodgers potentially getting back behind center for the Packers, Green Bay could suddenly be in the hunt again.

    Even now, they’re only a game out of first place in the NFC North, so technically anything can happen over the last three weeks. If they somehow manage to get in, it means they would’ve earned it, bringing another real contender into the tourney.

    And the Detroit Lions, with all their defects, are not nearly as threatening as an Aaron Rodgers-led football team. Over the last three weeks, the North should be a division to watch, particularly if Green Bay rises to the top.

    Aaron Rodgers still hasn't been cleared to play, but Packers coach Mike McCarthy did not rule him out this weekend.

    — NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 12, 2013