The San Francisco 49ers enter Week 17 with only part of their own destiny in their own hands.
A win down in Arizona means they’ve sewn up at least the fifth seed in the NFC. They have an outside chance of hosting a playoff game in Candlestick if they and sixth-seed New Orleans or Carolina win throughout the playoffs. However, the scenarios don’t end there—three other games impact where San Francisco will be sitting next week and beyond in the playoff race.
A win in Arizona, and San Francisco can find themselves sitting as high as the top seed in the NFC, with the bye week and home-field advantage that comes with it. A loss on the other hand could see them slide back to the sixth seed with a bit of bad luck.
Here are quick breakdowns of Sunday’s three other games that hold some importance for the 49ers.
Fox, 1 p.m. EST. Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch on commentary.
The only early game that affects the 49ers is the Panthers-Falcons showdown in Atlanta; if the Panthers win, the 49ers hopes at the top seed in the NFC vanish, thanks to San Francisco’s 10-9 loss to Carolina back in Week 10.
The week before that particular matchup, the Falcons and Panthers had their first meeting, in Carolina. It wasn’t a pretty sight—the Panthers crushed Atlanta, 34-10.
The Carolina defense played a huge role in that blowout, intercepting Matt Ryan three times and returning one of them for a touchdown. While one of those throws was just unlucky—a tipped ball that ended up in the hands of Thomas Davis—the other two were poor throws on routes undercut by Luke Kuechly and Drayton Florence.
All in all, Ryan didn’t have a horrible game, but the three interceptions, coupled with Jacquizz Rodgers’ lost fumble, were backbreakers, as a game that at one point saw Carolina up just 14-10 ballooned into a lopsided defeat for Atlanta.
The Panthers still have the division and a bye week to play for, but as 49ers fans saw on Monday night, the Falcons haven’t exactly given up on the season quite yet. Steve Smith will likely miss the game after spraining his PCL last week, limiting the Panthers offense slightly.
You have to favor the Panthers in this one if for no other reason than their seven-win advantage over Atlanta, but of the three games 49ers fans will have an eye on this week, this is the one most likely to go their way.
Fox, 4:25 p.m. EST. Chris Myers and Tim Ryan on commentary
The 49ers recipe for the division title is very simple—to win the NFC West, they need both to beat the Arizona Cardinals and have Seattle lose at home.
This seemed like a Herculean task before Week 16, but then the Cardinals did something no one else had done since the 2011 season—ride into CenturyLink Field and quiet the vaunted 12th man, defeating Seattle on its own turf.
The home-field advantage for the Seahawks is no joke—Grantland’s Bill Barnwell ran the numbers and found that Seattle has had the best home-field advantage since the league expanded to 32 teams back in 2002.
You can see San Francisco tied for third on that list—the battle for that top seed in the NFC could very well decide who will be representing the conference in the Super Bowl, if for no other reasons than Seattle and San Francisco can avoid crossing time zones or playing in freezing temperatures.
For St. Louis to also upset Seattle, the Rams are going to have to do something they just barely failed at in their own stadium. Back in Week 8, the Rams defense played a brilliant game, sacking Russell Wilson seven times—ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long had field days attacking the depleted Seahawks offensive line—and holding the Seahawks offense to only 14 points and 135 yards of total offense.
The Rams had the ball with a chance to score the winning touchdown at the end of the game, with a 1st-and-goal from the Seattle 6-yard line. They had five cracks at it, but couldn’t put the ball in the end zone, losing 14-9.
St. Louis might be the best seven-win team in football, but Seattle might just be the best twelve-win team. Not only is this game in Seattle, but the Seahawks’ offensive line is now intact, versus the tattered unit that struggled in the Edward Jones Dome earlier this season, with Russell Okung scheduled to play in this game after missing their road encounter in St. Louis.
Instead, it’s the Rams who are missing a key part of their offensive line, as Jake Long has a torn ACL and MCL. While it’s true Seattle hasn’t looked quite as dominant over the past month as they did at the midway point of the season, they are, and rightfully should be, favored in this matchup.
Fox, 4:25 p.m. EST. Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick on commentary.
The least meaningful of the three games altering San Francisco’s playoff seeding, this game won’t be worth paying much attention to unless the 49ers begin falling behind in Arizona. If San Francisco loses to the Cardinals and the Saints win, then the 49ers will slide to the sixth seed thanks to their Week 11 loss in New Orleans. However, if the Saints lose, then the 49ers would hold on to the fifth seed even if they fell to Arizona.
The first matchup between Tampa Bay and New Orleans happened all the way back in Week 2, and for the Buccaneers, that might as well be several lifetimes ago.
Josh Freeman was still the starting quarterback, and Doug Martin was still the starting running back. It was before they dropped their next six games to start 0-8. It was before the Bucs managed to then put together a stretch in which they won four out of five contests, though they’ve been on a two-game slide since that burst of promising play.
The first Bucs-Saints meeting also was played after a near-monsoon swamped the stadium, with the game delayed for 69 minutes as a result of lightning strikes. The end result was a sloppy, and not altogether predictable, 16-14 victory for New Orleans.
The fact of the matter is this: For New Orleans, this is very much a playoff game. Unlike the 49ers, who know they’re going to be in the playoffs no matter what happens, the Saints could be sitting at home for the playoffs if they blow this game against Tampa Bay. That’s a powerful motivating force and—when factoring in that the better of the two teams is playing at home—it’s probably an insurmountable one for Greg Schiano’s men.
Fortunately for San Francisco, this particular matchup will likely be of little importance in their overall playoff picture, but if the 49ers can’t put away the Cardinals early, many nail-biting moments will be had staring at the scoreboard.