San Francisco 49ers: Ranking the Schedule from Easiest to Hardest
The 2014 NFL season kicks off Thursday night! Are you excited? I sure am.
It will be a nice change of pace to get back to seeing how well the offense will develop on the field and how the defense will jell, despite missing anywhere from three to six starters from last season. Anything will be OK in order to get this offseason of suspensions, arrests and allegations somewhat in the rearview mirror.
We could go game-by-game and predict the 49ers' final record, but that’s been handled nicely elsewhere, including Bleacher Report’s own Tyson Langland earlier this offseason. Instead, let’s rank the games in order of likelihood for the 49ers to win, starting with the easiest and moving on to the most difficult.
In other words, if you think the 49ers are going to go 9-7, they’d probably win the first nine games in this slideshow and lose the last seven. If you think they need to get to 12 wins to win the NFC West, you should be looking for them to pick up the first 12 games and so forth.
We’re taking into account the strength of each individual team first and foremost, of course, but that’s not the only factor. Long road trips are draining, and they make games more difficult, while homestands and bye weeks naturally up a team’s odds. NaVorro Bowman's recovery and Aldon Smith's suspension also play large parts in determining the 49ers’ odds of success.
Here is my ranking of the 49ers games, from easiest to hardest.
16. Week 9 vs. St. Louis
The St. Louis Rams struggled against the 49ers last season, despite having a very tough defense. Both of the two games—a 23-13 victory in San Francisco and a 35-11 win in St. Louis—were really over before the fourth quarter even began.
Now, the Rams have to go through their 2014 season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford, who tore his ACL again and will miss the entire year. While they’re fortunate to have ex-49er Shaun Hill, who was one of the top backup quarterbacks in football, that’s only going to take them so far.
Adding to the Rams woes is the fact that this game comes right after San Francisco’s bye, allowing them to rest and heal before a home game. They also could be getting NaVorro Bowman back this week, barring any setbacks or faster-than-expected healing processes.
The odds are heavily stacked against a St. Louis win here.
15. Week 17 vs. Arizona
I do question Arizona’s ability to replicate their 10-6 season from last year. While I think they’ll still be alright, Carson Palmer will be 35 by this point. I think he tumbles down to being a below-average quarterback this season, though I don’t think he’ll be bad enough to be outright replaced.
They’re also going to miss Darnell Dockett, on injured reserve with a torn ACL. While Calais Campbell is their clear star, the loss of Dockett is going to lead to more double-teams, and it’ll be interesting to see how Campbell responds.
Week 17 games are hard to predict, but the 49ers could be battling for seeding or possibly even a playoff spot at this point, while I think the Cardinals will be out of contention. That gives the 49ers an added boost that the Cardinals won’t have. Also, the 49ers should be at full strength from the various offseason ailments and suspensions at this point and be rounding into full form for the playoff run.
On top of that, the 49ers’ last road trip out of the Pacific Time Zone comes in Week 11, so they’ll essentially have a month and a half of very limited travel to rest. The Cardinals will also be coming off of a tough game against the Seattle Seahawks the week before.
The home game against the Cardinals last season didn’t exactly come down to the wire, with the 49ers settling into a comfortable 29-20 lead midway through the fourth quarter and holding on the rest of the way in a 32-20 win. I don’t expect the home game here to be much different—the road game is a different story.
14. Week 12 vs. Washington
Do you trust Robert Griffin III’s recovery? It’s too simplistic to say as RGIII goes, so goes Washington, but he wasn’t the same player last year as he was in his stellar rookie season. If he can’t get back a significant portion of that rookie magic, the team is in trouble.
Washington might struggle anyway, as their defense isn’t very imposing. They’ve got a very solid set of outside linebackers in Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan who might give the tackles fits, but after that, there’s nothing to be too frightened of. They finished last place in the NFC East last year, and I’m not seeing much that will propel them out of that slot in 2014.
Their Monday Night showdown last season was a flop; the 49ers marched into Washington and found themselves with a 17-6 lead midway through the third quarter, expanding that to a 27-6 final in garbage time.
Colin Kaepernick threw for three touchdowns, despite not having Michael Crabtree, and the 49ers rolled. Washington should be better than that this year, but with the game at home, I don’t think it’ll have much of an effect.
13. Week 14 @ Oakland
I had this as the easiest game for a long time, until I started thinking about the potential trap nature of it.
The week before this game, there’s the Thanksgiving showdown against the Seattle Seahawks. The week after this game, there’s the game in CenturyLink against the Seattle Seahawks. It’d be very easy to look past this one, swallowed up in the emotion of two huge games against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Then again, it’s the Oakland Raiders. Football Outsiders ran one million simulations of the 2014 season, and the Raiders managed to win the Super Bowl only 373 times. By comparison, the Jacksonville Jaguars won over 1,700 times in those simulations, while Denver picked up more than 140,000 victories. The Raiders simply aren’t projected to be very good.
Maybe Derek Carr, named the Week 1 starter, will develop and grow, and be a solid contributor by Week 14. All things being equal, I’d rather play him early while he’s still learning as opposed to later. That’s a big “maybe,” though.
12. Week 5 vs. Kansas City
No, this isn’t irrational Alex Smith bashing.
The Kansas City Chiefs started off incredibly hot last season, winning their first nine games with a top-five defense. Then, after their bye week, they stumbled to a 2-6 record, including the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
That vaunted defense? No team gave up more yards in the second half of 2013 than the Chiefs, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, and while part of that comes from playing the Denver Broncos twice, that’s not all of it. There was some clear regression from the early-season numbers, a pattern I expect to continue somewhat in 2014.
They’ve also lost Brandon Flowers, with no real quality replacement in the secondary. They have an incredibly young offensive line that should suffer some growing pains. It’s a limb I’m going out on, but I think the Chiefs miss the playoffs by a solid margin.
11. Week 2 vs. Chicago
Welcome to the Levi’s Stadium home opener!
That didn’t mean much in the preseason, when the 49ers were blown out by the Denver Broncos. Then again, the preseason doesn’t mean much either, so that balances out.
In front of a national audience, in their new stadium, determined to put the offseason behind them, I expect the 49ers to come out strong in their debut. That’s not always the case—the New York Jets lost their home opener in the New Meadowlands Stadium in 2010, and the Dallas Cowboys lost theirs in Cowboys Stadium in 2009. Still, it should provide the team a boost.
The Chicago Bears are an interesting opponent—I think they take a wild-card spot this season, behind their powerful offense. It’s too bad the 49ers won’t be at full strength, defensively, to challenge them.
However, an early matchup might be a double-edged sword for Chicago, as its defense was awful last year. It should be better this year, but it’ll probably need some time to jell together. It should be a sterner defense in Week 12 than in Week 2.
10. Week 16 vs. San Diego
Another playoff team battled at home. We’re definitely in the tougher home games at this point; there’s only two left on the list.
The San Diego Chargers fall in the 49ers’ late-season stretch of almost no travel, after all the suspensions and injuries have been dealt with. The Chargers also will be coming off of a tough game against the Denver Broncos and have another huge game against the Kansas City Chiefs the week after.
So why are the Chargers rated as a tougher opponent than the Bears? Call it potential versus proven skill. I think the Bears will be a playoff team this season, but the Chargers definitely were one last year. Unlike the Chiefs, the Chargers actually improved down the stretch last year, too, and they added Brandon Flowers to their defense.
Their defense, like Chicago’s, is also something of a work in progress, but they’ll have four months of regular-season action to get it together by the time this game happens. They’ll also likely be well into the heat of a wild-card chase here, giving them an extra bit of energy for this matchup—this game could decide the wild-card situation in both conferences, in theory.
9. Week 4 vs. Philadelphia
The second-hardest home game sees Chip Kelly and his up-tempo offense come into Levi’s Stadium.
I’ve heard some pundits on television talking about whether or not Kelly’s up-tempo offense is a fad, like the Wildcat was. They wonder if the NFL will catch up and slow the Philadelphia Eagles down as they adjust to Kelly’s college ways.
The difference here is that Kelly has an offensive philosophy, and not just a trick formation. The Eagles, according to the Football Outsider’s Almanac, ran a play every 23.38 seconds. That’s the fastest they’ve ever tracked, going back to 1997. With the zone read, a speedy offense and a stellar half-season from Nick Foles, they took the league by storm last year.
Now, Foles is not going to be able to reproduce his numbers from a small sample size last season; I don’t think he’s going to throw 43 touchdowns and only three interceptions, as he was on pace to do last season. Last season, the Eagles never faced the slate of defenses they’ll get this year, with the Seahawks and 49ers on the schedule.
Then again, these are the 49ers without Bowman, without Aldon Smith and without Glenn Dorsey. That’s worrisome. It’s a long road trip for Philadelphia, and jetlag might slow them down somewhat, but they’re one of the more frightening teams in the NFC. If this game were on the road, it’d be much, much higher on this list.
8. Week 6 @ St. Louis
But wait, didn’t I say the Rams game would be the easiest on the schedule? There’s a huge difference between Week 6 and Week 9, and it’s not just the difference between a home game and a road game.
Week 6 is pre-Bowman and pre-Smith, and it’s coming after a really tough slate of games. You have Chicago, which I think will be a playoff team, Arizona, which won 10 games last year, Philadelphia, which will run the 49ers ragged, and Kansas City, which I think is less intimidating, but I am willing to entertain the possibility of being wrong.
That’s 39 wins from last season in a row, which is a bit of a murder’s row of a schedule. Add in the fact that the game after this is a road trip to the defending AFC champion Denver Broncos and there’s a real possibility of attention slipping and fading for this one.
As far as road trips go, a trip to St. Louis isn’t that rough, and the 49ers are still missing their starting quarterback. I do still think San Francisco will come out on top of this one, but it’s a rough game.
7. Week 1 @ Dallas
I originally considered this game a bit easier, but now the 49ers are dealing with the distraction caused by Ray McDonald’s arrest. Will McDonald play against Dallas? That’s still up in the air.
That’s not all, though—Alex Boone just reported to the team, and it’s less than clear if he’ll be ready to go for Week 1. Anthony Davis also hasn’t appeared in the preseason at all, and who knows how he’ll look in his first game back from injury.
The 49ers’ first-string offense didn’t get much work, so we don’t know how much in sync they’ll be from the gun, there’s a lot of new players in the secondary jelling together—the Dallas game might have the team feeling around a bit, trying to see how all the new parts fit.
This would be a serious problem if Dallas didn’t have major defensive woes of its own. Sean Lee is out for a season, again, and there’s no real replacement for him. They’re also down DeMarcus Ware, who was let go for salary reasons, and Jason Hatcher, who is in Washington now. That means the best defender on Dallas is…Henry Melton? A recovering Anthony Spencer? There’s not a lot there.
Expect a shootout in Dallas.
6. Week 11 @ New York Giants
The New York Giants game is the second half of what is a long road trip for the 49ers—the week before, they play in New Orleans. They might opt to spend the week in Ohio as they’ve done in the past, but it’s still a draining trip—either four cross-country flights or a full week away from home and familiar surroundings.
The Giants bottomed-out last year, but I don’t think Eli Manning can be that bad two years in a row. I expect him to bounce back some and bring the rest of the team up with him.
They also suffered a massive amount of injuries last season. They listed 40 different players on their injury report last season, including Stevie Brown for 16 games, Andre Brown for nine and David Wilson for 11. Those players are either back or have replacements. The Giants can’t hit the injury bug that hard again…can they?
The Giants were mediocre in general last season, though they finished strong. I don’t think they’re going to bounce back into playoff contention or anything, but an improved Giants team, coupled with the end of a long road trip, might make this one tough for the 49ers. There is one silver lining—this should be Aldon Smith’s first game back from suspension. Call it sixth-hardest after balancing out all the factors.
5. Week 3 @ Arizona
While I think the Cardinals will be done by Week 17, making that game much simpler, there’s no reason to think that in the third week of the year. This is a team that went 10-6 last season, and it wants a playoff berth.
The Cardinals nearly pulled off a season-saving upset over the 49ers in Arizona last season, with the 49ers kicking the game-winning field goal as time expired to send the Cardinals home for good. It was a nail-biter, and the Cardinals had the chance to win with a 1st-and-10 on San Francisco’s 32, down three points with less than a minute to go, but they couldn’t pull it off.
This early in the season, the 49ers are still without most of their defensive starters. Carson Palmer hasn’t had time to break down yet. The 49ers are coming down off of the high of their home opener against Chicago. There’s every chance the Cardinals might steal this one.
4. Week 13 vs. Seattle
Wait, I’m putting one of the two Seahawks games as not the hardest two on the schedule? What gives?
First of all, there are two very difficult road games that are yet to come, both of which will be contested without Aldon Smith and possibly Bowman, as well.
Secondly, this game’s on Thanksgiving night, meaning there’s a short preparation week. Additionally, the 49ers will be coming off of a home game against Washington, meaning their travel time will be zero. The Seahawks will have a tougher game against the Cardinals, who beat them at home last season.
Thirdly, the 49ers won the home game last season between the two teams with a dramatic, 11-play fourth-quarter drive capped off by a Phil Dawson go-ahead field goal, and then an interception of Russell Wilson on their last play from scrimmage to ice it. Unlike CenturyLink, there’s recent history which shows the 49ers can beat the Seahawks at home.
It’s still, by a wide margin, San Francisco’s toughest home game. But it may not be as bad as the next two road games…
3. Week 10 @ New Orleans
Remember last year? That Ahmad Brooks hit on Drew Brees, which was ruled a penalty on the field? That he later appealed, and his fine was overturned? That led to the Saints tying the game before winning it with a field goal as time expired? Yeah, that sure was something.
The league later said the call was “absolutely correct,” but the video evidence is less clear—Brooks only makes contact with Brees’ neck after the hit is initiated; Brooks hit Brees in the shoulder, and the moment carries Brees’ head into the hit.
It was a huge momentum shift, but it’s simplistic to say that cost the 49ers the game. They had the ball after the series, tied, and then went three-and-out. They then committed fair-catch interference, giving the ball to the Saints on their own 40, and eventually allowing them to march 41 yards for a chip-shot game-winning field goal.
Still, the memory of that hit burns raw and will probably be mentioned once or twice leading up to this game.
Oh, 2014? Drew Brees is really good, the New Orleans Saints are really good, Aldon Smith won’t be playing in this game and it’s the first half of a two-game road trip. It’s a rough matchup.
2. Week 7 @ Denver
I very, very nearly made this the hardest game on the schedule.
You have Peyton Manning and the world’s greatest offense, setting records and looking just as good this year as they did the year before. You have a newly revamped defense, with DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward providing reinforcements.
Week 7 will still encompass Aldon Smith’s suspension, as well as likely being too early for Bowman to return. It comes the week before the bye, meaning the 49ers will have just gone through the murderer’s row that is Weeks 3-7 on their schedule, ending it with one of the three surefire Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the NFL.
On top of that, you have the shredding of the 49ers by the Broncos in the preseason, though that doesn’t matter too much.
Yes, there’s a lot to dislike about this matchup, and if the 49ers can get through this week at 4-3, they should be applauded for it. Still, I couldn’t quite put it past…
1. Week 15 @ Seattle
They're the defending Super Bowl champions. They're San Francisco’s biggest current rivals. And then there's all of the recent history between the two clubs.
But also, there's the 29-3 drubbing the Seahawks laid on the 49ers in the regular season last year...the heartbreaking loss in the NFC Championship Game—Richard Sherman standing triumphant over a defeated Michael Crabtree.
It's the fact that Seattle will either be going for the season-sweep of their archrivals from the south or looking for revenge for losing on national television on Thanksgiving Day. You simply cannot overlook the sheer ferocity of the defense, the wonderful talent of Russell Wilson, the potential game-breaking ability of Percy Harvin and the Seahawks playing in the most imposing stadium in the NFL to play in.
Make no mistake, this is the hardest game the 49ers will have, no matter how healthy their defense is. Can the 49ers get their first win in Seattle since 2011, when Alex Smith and Tarvaris Jackson were the starting quarterbacks? That’s the toughest challenge they have on their regular-season plate.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.