The NFL's kaleidoscopic playoff picture—always changing with every week—is finally coming into clearer focus. While the 49ers can still finish anywhere from being the No. 1 seed to missing out on the postseason entirely, they remain in control of their own destiny and can help their situation immensely with a strong regular-season finish.
To use an old sports proverb, it's always how you end.
New Orleans and Carolina each have identical 10-4 records. One of those teams will suffer its fifth loss when they play each other next week (Spoiler alert: it's going to be the team that can't win on the road, schemes to injure opposing players and wears black and gold uniforms), which means San Francisco will finish as the No. 5 seed if it beats both the Falcons and the Cardinals to close out the year.
The only chance the 49ers have of winning the West is if the Seahawks lose to both the Cardinals and the Rams at home. Arizona has won six out of its last seven games and remains one game out of the final NFC playoff spot. St. Louis came within five yards of upsetting Seattle earlier in the season.
There's always the possibility of crazy happening. Just Look at Week 15 around the league. I mean, really? Who would have seen the Chargers outshooting the Broncos in Denver, Justin Tucker kicking a ludicrous game-winning 61-yard field goal to beat the Lions or Tony Romo throwing two fourth-quarter interceptions to lose a game the Cowboys once led by 23 points? Well, maybe crazy got mixed in with a little normalcy.
But methinks that the road to the Super Bowl will go through the land of rain and the 12th man. Aside from the Seahawks, there may be a few other teams the 49ers may not be happy to see in January.
Who they face depends on how the rest of the NFC shakes out.
Here then are three foes the 49ers don't want to play on anything but their Xbox One.
It's human nature to not want to get into a fight with someone who kicked your ass the last time around.
Sure, the 49ers only lost by one point to the Carolina Panthers and they didn't have Michael Crabtree or Vernon Davis for much of the game. But if these two teams meet again it's going to be in Carolina, where the sight of opposing players getting bludgeoned up and down the field is something that gets fans pretty riled up.
While the Niners will be in a much better position to attack the Panthers' taped-up secondary, the offensive line is going to have step up against Carolina's fantastic front seven. The Cats simply dominated the battle in the trenches the last time out, routinely getting to Colin Kaepernick using only a four-man rush.
If Kaepernick can find a comfort zone in the pocket, the 49ers will win. Otherwise it's going to be the same horror show usually seen in a season finale of The Walking Dead.
The Panthers offense doesn't look too impressive on paper, but Cam Newton has proven to be an efficient fourth-quarter closer this season, and Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams are efficient weapons who can keep the ball moving down the field.
There's a strong chance that Carolina will miss the playoffs if they lose to the Saints this weekend. For the 49ers, that's not a bad thing. Funny, but not bad.
It took over 60 years, but the Bears finally have an offense. And it's a pretty damn good one.
Jay Cutler is the best quarterback the Bears have had since, well, Jim Harbaugh. Armed with the deadliest receiving tandem in the NFL and an outstanding running back in Matt Forte, there isn't a team in the league that the Bears can't score against.
A road game in Chicago would be treacherous for a 49ers team that doesn't really know what snow looks like, and Soldier Field is an extremely brutal atmosphere to play in (though Joe Montana would disagree).
The one thing the Bears also have is a terrible defense (did they move Rex Grossman to linebacker to replace Brian Urlacher?) and that is something that the 49ers would have to exploit.
Throughout this season, San Francisco has relied on its defense to stay ahead in games while failing to drive down the field against weak opponents and deliver the haymaker.
Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis can't expect Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to stifle the league's second-ranked offense while they score the same amount of points against the Bears' horrendous defense.
The Niners have no excuses. With Crabtree and Manningham finally back in the swing of things, the offense needs to come into this matchup with one thing in mind: "Kill da Bears."
This might come as a surprise, as there isn't anyone else that the 49ers want to beat more to get to the Super Bowl. But no one wins at CenturyLink Field. Ask Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Stephen Hawking. They'll tell you that it's just not possible.
With the 49ers offense finally finding its stride late in the season, there's a good chance it can do a better job of controlling the tempo of the game and tempering the noise level that's been a huge factor in San Francisco's last two defeats there.
It's actually kind of mandatory.
The Seahawks feed on momentum wherever they can find it— a fumble, a pick-six, one thunderous run—anything that can set off an earth-shattering roar and move the tectonic plates. Teams fall apart and simply implode under the weekly tempest caused by one of the loudest stadiums on the continent.
San Francisco may have the more talented team, but the Seahawks (at this point) have earned the right to stay at home for the playoffs, posing a monumental obstacle that the 49ers don't want to run into.