First of all, I'm not folding here by saying "or." I think the 49ers will have the edge in both of these contests, including the road game in Baltimore. Surely, they will both pose big challenges as the Ravens and Steelers boast two of the most intimidating defenses in the entire NFL. But the 49ers with less star power have just as much talent, if not more in the linebacking corps and the defensive line.
I'm just trying to be realistic. So, realistically, 15-1 is rare. As is 14-2. But the Niners have already beaten the teams that were deemed "tough" on their schedule. Down with the Eagles in Philadelphia. Boom go the Giants. Lions, Bucs and Bengals oh my? More like goodbye.
The way Jim Harbaugh prepares this team every week and has them playing at an unmerciful pace, I don't think they will take anyone for granted the rest of the way. This is why I believe 14-2 is very plausible, 15-1 very possible.
To beat the Ravens, the 49ers are going to have to rely on the arm of Alex Smith. Not that the running game won't show up, but the Baltimore front seven is really tough. I think it's going to come down to Joe Flacco versus Alex Smith. It's a coin flip the way they've been playing this year, so it could go either way.
I think if the 49ers are going to lose one of these games, it's going to be against the Ravens. Baltimore seems to have a tendency to play to their opponents. That means that they play horribly against bad teams like the Seahawks, and play great against good teams like the Steelers. If Baltimore lays another stinker, the Niners will take it handily, otherwise it's going to be a dog-fight.
One caveat with that prediction though—if Dashon Goldson gets slapped with a suspension for his idiotic fight in the Cardinals game, you can bet the Ravens' chances will vastly improve.
Against Pittsburgh, a key is going to be getting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger. Here's to hoping that John Harbaugh will help his brother out with a little inside information on his division rival. Doubtful, though. If the 49ers can get pressure on Roethlisberger in that game, they should win. The Steelers' QB can be mistake prone when rushed, and I think San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will dial up some blitz schemes to rock him.
Being at home and with the motivational stage that is Monday Night Football, the 49ers will have a big advantage. The Steelers will be psyched up to win a road game that will surely have a huge impact on their own playoff race, so you never know.
Either way, the 49ers need to take one of these games against elite AFC opponents to put themselves in the driver's seat for that number one seed.