Predicting the San Francisco 49ers' Most Important Games of 2014 Season
For the first time since the final whistle blew on the NFC Championship Game, the San Francisco 49ers have meaningful games set in stone for the upcoming season.
Four months separate this paper schedule from its life played out on the gridiron, but the speculation doesn't have to wait until the opening weekend of September. Only time will show which teams rise next season, but the upcoming battles don't look easy for the 49ers.
In fact, the 49ers face a schedule tied for the fourth toughest in 2014, according to John Breech of CBSSports.com. In terms of 2013 results, San Francisco's upcoming opponents combined for a 144-112 record and a winning percentage of .563.
Of course, Jim Harbaugh's 49ers don't have the look of a slouch in their own right. On the road to their next playoff run, however, there will be several tests along the way.
When taking potential seeding and wild-card implications into account, several games appear more important than others.
It's a virtual guarantee that the 17 weeks of the season will play out differently than we expect, but some matchups are certainly worthy of an early circle on the calendars. For those looking to prioritize their fall weekends, look no further than these upcoming clashes.
Note: All statistics and rankings according to pro-football-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
By default, AFC matchups will have the least impact on any potential playoff picture, at least in terms of head-to-head tiebreakers. With the competitive AFC West on the schedule, however, two games in particular earned at least an honorable mention on this list.
Familiar faces and high-octane foes will certainly make it interesting in the middle of the 2014 schedule:
Kansas City Chiefs (Home, Week 5)
The Chiefs rode the wave of new head coach Andy Reid all the way to the playoffs last season, carrying over a long legacy of success from Philadelphia. New quarterback Alex Smith also played a big part in that success, earning his first Pro Bowl berth behind a career-high 23 touchdowns.
Smith, of course, had just been traded to Kansas City after a long career in San Francisco, where he lost his job to current starter Colin Kaepernick.
For whatever controversy existed at the time of the switch, much of that talk has died down with the 49ers' continued success. Still, a win over their former captain and quarterback would certainly be welcomed in Smith's surely bittersweet homecoming.
Denver Broncos (Away, Week 7)
Apparently 49ers fans weren't the only ones left wondering what could have been in the aftermath of the lopsided Super Bowl.
According to Kevin Patra of NFL.com, Harbaugh told reporters that he "laid awake" thinking about the Seattle Seahawks' thrashing of the Broncos on the big stage. The 49ers fell just a few inches short of taking down Seattle for the NFC title, surely leaving a bitter taste in the organization's mouth.
With the Broncos pulling in defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in free agency, Denver should be much improved for this matchup. A road win here won't bring the Lombardi Trophy to San Francisco, but it surely will offer a great measuring stick.
No. 5: Philadelphia Eagles (Home, Week 4)
Coach Chip Kelly's high-octane offense earned the Eagles an NFC East title and a home playoff game last season, despite ultimately falling short in the Wild Card Round. If a division championship is once again in the 49ers' sights for 2014, this could be an important matchup for playoff-seeding purposes.
Philadelphia also will represent the first matchup against a 2013 playoff team, offering an early test for a rebuilt secondary.
Despite juggling two different quarterbacks last season, the Eagles finished No. 9 in passing offense and No. 4 in total offense. Current starter Nick Foles also finished atop the league in quarterback rating with a mark of 119.2.
The 49ers, on the other hand, will feature new safety Antoine Bethea and the return of cornerback Chris Culliver from a serious knee injury. Culliver and fellow corner Tramaine Brock are also be entering their first full seasons as starters, pending the addition of a high draft pick.
Linebacker Aldon Smith's immediate future also is in doubt, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. With no current resolution in Smith's various legal issues, it's tough to project the pass rush that will support this new-look defensive backfield.
Early struggles on defense would be a cause for concern for this Super Bowl hopeful, making this an important showing for a recently staunch unit.
No. 4: Chicago Bears (Home, Week 2)
In another matchup against a formidable offense, the Chicago Bears will come to town for the first game at the new Levi's Stadium. Opening on a high note will certainly be important for the organization as a whole, but a win would be significant for football purposes as well.
Along the same lines as Philadelphia, the Bears finished 2013 as the league's fifth-ranked passing offense and No. 8 overall in total yards. After just missing the playoffs with a Week 17 loss, Chicago will surely be hungry for a hot start in the new season.
The reshuffled defensive lineup will face a tough test once again, but the 49ers' offense is looking at a different story.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick made his starting debut against the Bears in 2012, shredding Chicago's defense and never looking back. Only the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings allowed more yards than the Bears did in 2013, presenting Kaepernick with ample opportunity to get off on the right foot.
This one has the makings of a shootout, complete with possible playoff ramifications. Both teams should be in the mix as the season wears on, and a wild-card tiebreaker could very well come down to the result of this early meeting.
No. 3: New Orleans Saints (Away, Week 10)
Jim Harbaugh's group left New Orleans with a loss last season after a controversial call against linebacker Ahmad Brooks, displayed in the photo above. The teams will revisit their growing rivalry when the 49ers travel to New Orleans for the third straight season in 2014.
Both teams will likely be gearing up for the home stretch of the playoff run, battling for seeding and possibly their playoff lives. The Saints and 49ers were both Wild Card teams in the NFC last season, fighting off a crowded field in the competitive conference.
Facing off for the fourth time since January 2012, these teams know each other all too well. If the 49ers truly feel that they were robbed in the Superdome last year, it's hard to picture a pretty result playing out on the field.
A battle of conference heavyweights is always must-see TV, only taking a backseat on this list to key division matchups on the back end of the slate.
No. 2: Arizona Cardinals (Home, Week 17)
After the 49ers travel to Arizona in Week 3, the second meeting of these division foes is saved for Week 17 once again. San Francisco staved off the Cardinals in the final week of 2013 on the way to a Wild Card, leaving their rivals out of the playoffs despite a 10-6 record.
The NFC West has established itself as one of the toughest divisions in football, and it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which the season comes down to the final game.
Both matchups in 2013 proved to be hard-fought contests, with the 49ers pulling away late for two critical victories. Shut out of the postseason, the Cardinals can once again be expected to bring their top game to the table to take down the hated 49ers.
That brings 2013's sixth-ranked defense in terms of total yards, allowing just eight more yards than the fifth-ranked 49ers. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick actually managed two of his better performance against this defense, however, which should make for another set of down-to-the-wire finishes.
Both faceoffs will be important, but closing the season against a worthy division foe makes the stakes undoubtedly higher in second go-around.
No. 1: Seattle Seahawks (Home, Week 13)
Is there really any other answer?
Closing out the season against the up-and-coming Cardinals is certainly a key game, but there is no more high-profile rivalry in today's NFL than the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks.
Make no mistake: Both games are key for the division race and possibly even the wild card. Unlike the season series against the Cardinals, however, the first matchup against the Seahawks is the more important of the two in 2014.
With that in mind, the 49ers host the Seahawks on Thanksgiving night in Week 13 before traveling to Seattle in Week 15. Winning the first matchup in their new house would give the 49ers the upper hand before a quick turnaround on the road.
CenturyLink Field has been a house of horrors during Colin Kaepernick's tenure, but putting both games on a five-game list would be too easy. Not only is the first game a favorable matchup on the home field, but a win would also put the 49ers in the driver's seat.
If the rest of the season follows the plan, this is the most important game for the 2014 San Francisco 49ers. Reclaiming the division starts with a win over the defending champs, and there's no other way around it.
On the national stage, there's no better time for the 49ers to be at their best and set up for the final stretch.
Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Take the conversation to Twitter by following @smeaton49.
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