Looking Ahead to Biggest Matchups on the San Francisco 49ers' Schedule
The San Francisco 49ers look to be once again right in the thick of the Super Bowl race, and anything short of another deep playoff run would be a disappointment.
While it would be fantastic if the team could romp to a 16-0 regular season and continue that momentum until they’re holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona, that’s unrealistic.
Rather, in order to win their sixth Super Bowl championship, they’re going to have to fight their way through some very tough matchups.
Let’s take a look at six of the marquee matchups the 49ers face this season—the big matchups that will go the furthest to determining whether San Francisco will overtake the Seattle Seahawks to win back the NFC West crown, settle in as a wild-card team or even miss the playoffs altogether.
The primary factor on this list is the expected strength of teams in 2014, but there are X-factors at play, as well—some matchups are bigger than others because of their timing or because of off-the-field considerations, such as the opening of a new stadium or a prime time showcase. Some matchups are just inherently more marquee than others thanks to the history between the clubs.
Without further ado, here are the six matchups that could make or break San Francisco’s 2014 season.
6. Week 4 Versus Philadelphia Eagles
While the matchup against Philadelphia looks a little easier with DeSean Jackson out of town, they still feature Chip Kelly’s hyper up-tempo offense. Nick Foles had a coming-out party last season, throwing for an astounding 9.1 yards per attempt with 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions in his 10 games as a starter.
The Philadelphia Eagles are legitimately a frightening opponent—if they can get their defense up to levels their offense played at last season, they’re going to be tough to beat. The questions remain: Will Kelly and Foles take their games to the next level? Or, with a year of film to study the Eagles offense, will the NFL catch up and slow it down?
While this looks like it will be a classic offense versus defense showdown, the Eagles did take several steps to improve their dismal secondary this offseason. They brought in defensive backs Nolan Carroll and Malcom Jenkins to try to patch up Football Outsiders’ 23rd-ranked pass defense.
It will be exciting to see San Francisco’s revamped passing attack go after Philadelphia’s revamped secondary. Both teams are counting on these units to help them get over the hump, so it’s an intriguing matchup of question mark against question mark.
5. Week 3 @ Arizona Cardinals
In almost any other division, the 10-6 Arizona Cardinals would be favorites to compete for the division crown. In the NFC West, looking up at San Francisco and Seattle, they’re likely hoping to just cling to a wild-card spot.
For them to do that, they will likely have to take a game or two from the two giants at the top of the division, and this early home game is one of their best chances to do so. This will be San Francisco’s first encounter with a great defense in 2014, and if the offense isn’t ready to go, this game could get ugly.
The Cardinals were the best team to miss the playoffs in 2014, and one of the best teams to ever miss the playoffs in the 12-team format. They know that four divisional losses were what kept them home last season, so they should be pumped up for a big divisional clash early on in the season.
They made a great move to improve their pass protection this offseason, too, bringing in Jared Veldheer from Oakland. If he’s fully recovered from last year's triceps tear, he’ll help keep quarterback Carson Palmer upright. They also added to what’s quickly becoming a very formidable secondary, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
With Cromartie, Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon, the Cardinals would have the best secondary in almost any division, but, again, they’re stuck in the NFC West. Consider it a test for the 49ers passing game before going up against the Legion of Boom in Seattle.
4. Week 2 Versus Chicago Bears
Weeks 2 through 4 look to be quite the gauntlet for the 49ers, though at least the road trip to Arizona is a short one.
The matchup with Chicago gets a boost because of the circumstances surrounding the game. On Sunday Night Football, we’ll see the regular season debut of Levi’s Stadium. Will San Francisco’s new stadium give them the sort of home-field advantage Seattle enjoys? How quickly will it feel like home, rather than just a shiny new monstrosity? It’ll be interesting to what dynamic of how the stadium plays in a real game.
Of course, that alone wouldn’t boost the game to most interesting levels, so let’s talk about the Chicago Bears for a moment. Yes, they fell to 8-8 last season thanks to an implosion on the defensive side of the ball, but the Monsters of the Midway made some moves in the offseason to bring that unit back to respectability.
The addition of Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young to the defensive line should instantly ramp up their pass rush, while Ryan Mundy is a very good run-stopping safety. Chicago’s hoping this influx of talent will bring the Bears defense back to the standard it's long been known for.
You still have to contend with a potent Bears offense, the turnaround of which was orchestrated in 2013 by then rookie head coach Marc Trestman. The 49ers secondary, the weakest unit on San Francisco's defense, will have to deal with the wide receiver duo of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, and that’s a very tall task. It’ll be a challenge for likely new starters Chris Culliver and Jimmie Ward right off the bat and an early gauge as to how well the 49ers will be able to stop upper-echelon passing attacks during the season.
3. Week 7 @ Denver Broncos
Was there too much pressure for a Super Bowl or bust in San Francisco? Was it an attempt to avoid potential playoff matches against his brother Eli? We’ll never know exactly the reason, but Manning’s decision changed history.
It paved the way for Colin Kaepernick to take over as the starting quarterback halfway through the 2012 season. He was fine to replace Alex Smith, but he wasn’t going to take the reins away from Manning. Signing Manning derails Kaepernick’s career path, and we’re not talking about a contract extension for the young quarterback.
In the long run, of course, having a potential decade of Kaepernick is better than two or three seasons of Manning, but it’s fun to sit back and imagine how things would have been different had Manning ended up in the Bay Area.
The reason the Broncos are only third is because of tiebreakers—if you’re going to lose a game, it’s better to do it against a team from the other conference. Conference record is a key tiebreaker, so losing to an AFC team hurts the 49ers less than losing to an NFC team, and winning helps them less as well.
But a matchup against the defending AFC champions? A team that the Seattle Seahawks destroyed in the Super Bowl, leading 49ers fans to wonder what if they had been the one going up against Manning’s offense? It’s extremely enticing.
That’s not even getting into Denver’s big additions of DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib to pump up its defense. It should be a thrilling game, and 49ers fans might well need the Week 8 bye week just to catch their breaths.
2. Week 10 @ New Orleans Saints
The 49ers once again find themselves headed to New Orleans for one of this season's premier matchups.
Remember last season, the 49ers and Saints met in the Superdome in November, with New Orleans eventually coming out on top, 23-20. The 49ers had actually built up a 20-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, but three clutch field goals from Garrett Hartley turned the game around.
The key play that decided the game was a roughing-the-passer penalty on Ahmad Brooks—or was it?
Instead, Brooks was flagged for illegal contact, with the referee saying he made contact with the neck of Brees.
Here’s a shot of the hit in slow motion; a fascinating, if disturbing, image. You can see Brooks made contact with Brees’ chest and shoulders, and only hit the neck because of basic physics. Was the hit high? Yes. Was it a penalty? That’s harder to determine.
Brooks certainly didn’t think so, and the play was considered controversial—a game-changing penalty that bailed out a star quarterback.
I don’t have as much of a problem with the penalty call as some, as I’d rather the referees err on the side of safety. However, plays like this go to show how difficult it is to enforce the illegal-contact rules at full speed. Really, this sort of play should be challengeable, as there’s no way the referee could have told, in live action, precisely where Brees was hit.
One way or another, the 49ers get another shot at the Superdome. For the third year in a row, San Francisco is headed to New Orleans to take on Brees and his arsenal of offensive weapons. Expect to see Brooks' hit and penalty replayed roughly 10,000 times before the game begins.
1. Weeks 13 and 15 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Could it have been anything else?
The 49ers and Seahawks are the two best teams in the NFL, and it would take a lot to convince me otherwise. The fact that the NFC Championship came down to the last drive of the game, and that the Seahawks then went on to demolish the Broncos in the Super Bowl, furthered my belief that the best football is being played out on the West Coast.
Over a span of 18 days, the NFC West will be decided. If either team goes into the other team’s stadium and pulls out a win, they’re almost certainly going to win the division. If that team wins the division, it'll be in the driver’s seat to claim home-field advantage in the playoffs. If that team has home-field advantage, it'll be favored to get to the Super Bowl.
And if either of these teams make the Super Bowl, it will be my pick to win it all.
Can the 49ers get over the hump at CenturyLink Field? Have they closed the gap between the two teams this offseason? Or will the Legion of Boom once again stand triumphant with the ball in their hands at the end of the game?
That’s what football’s all about. These two games aren’t just the biggest on San Francisco’s schedule; they’re the two biggest regular-season games in the NFL this year. In less than three weeks, the two titans will clash twice.
They don’t come any bigger than this.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.