The 9-2 San Francisco 49ers have five games left. Four are against NFC West opponents whose combined record is 10-23. It is a schedule that in the early part of the year seemed daunting in that many expected the 49ers to be middling contenders for the division crown. Now it seems like the proverbial soft landing.
As of early December, it seems rather obvious that the Packers and the Niners are going to get the top two seeds in the NFC. That gets them a week off. To round out the division winners, I see New Orleans getting 11 wins, Dallas 10.
That leaves two wild cards, and right now I’d say Detroit and Atlanta have the inside track. I could see the Lions getting 11 wins, the Falcons 10. How that leads to first-round playoff games has yet to be worked out due to tiebreakers and other factors.
As for other contenders, the schedule kills the Giants’ hopes. They have to play the Cowboys twice and the Saints on Nov. 28. They’re just not going to have enough gas to get to the division crown. The Eagles are done and get to claim the honor of being the Most Disappointing Team of 2011.
The Bears’ loss at Oakland on Nov. 27 really set them back and the injury to Jay Cutler may prove to be their undoing. Of course, they do get another shot at the Packers, but with Cutler they looked so much stronger.
With that prognostication of NFL positioning, here’s an almost alphabetical rundown of the playoff scenarios for the 49ers.
The Falcons should make the playoffs but, as the sixth seed in the six-team slate, they most likely will be road warriors throughout. With the Saints on track for 11 or 12 wins, there’s a good chance they’ll travel to New Orleans for that first-round game. Should they advance, and that’s not impossible, then they would get the honor to travel to Green Bay for the division game.
A dome team in Green Bay in January? The only team with that credo to survive Lambeau is Minnesota. Everyone else melts. Er, freezes.
Should the Falcons win out in the regular season and beat out the Saints and host a first-round game, a win there would send them to San Francisco. As good as Matt Ryan is, and as dangerous as Julio Jones is, the Niners can take away Tony Gonzalez (No. 88) and stop the Atlanta offense. The Niners then put together enough offense to win.
The Return of the ‘Boys would be worth at least a week’s worth of Dallas vs. SF playoff rehashes, including the jarring loss in ’72, the Catch in ’81, Jimmy Johnson’s “I’ll Guarantee” win in ’92 and a complete examination of whether Deion Sanders interfered with Michael Irvin at a critical juncture of the ’94 NFC Championship game. (He did. Too bad.)
It would be a great rematch against a good offense going against a good defense. But this time, the defense wins because the defense is so much better than it was in Week 2. I don’t think the Cowboy offense and Romo (No. 9) has made the same strides.
Also, it is in this game that the week off from the first-round bye really shows up. The road team has had to play six or seven days prior and then travel. The home team rests and readies and then (most times) pounces.
The Lions get one more crack at the Packers in Week 17, and a win there may be needed to get them into the playoffs. The Pack might be taking the week off to visit friends and relatives in warmer climes.
If that is the case, the Lions would then travel to Dallas for a rematch of their Oct. 2 game in which they turned two fourth quarter Tony Romo passes into defensive TDs. I think the Cowboys won’t make the same mistake.
Also, the Lions sans Jahvid Best don’t have a strong run game, and the erratic play of Ndamukong Suh (No. 90) can be a distraction under high pressure. If they beat the Cowboys, however, the Lions would head west to meet the Niners in a Handshake Rematch Game.
You don’t think Lions coach Jim Schwartz dreams about that too much, do you? He does.
Again, no running game and now it's Matthew Stafford who has to deal with crowd noise and a vicious pass rush. And the game is played on grass, outdoors, in the wind. It’s too much for the Dome-loving Lions to overcome.
This is the team that should worry Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the 49ers. Drew Brees (No. 9) is one of the best at hitting those intermediate passes of 15 yards or more. They have a decent running game but Darren Sproles is an X factor — be can beat you out of the backfield or on a return.
Finally, Sean Payton is a very cool customer. Beating a dominant defensive team like the 49er on their home turn is something that Payton lives for. More importantly, this is a veteran team two years removed from the Super Bowl. Playing in Candlestick Park in a playoff game would be just another go-around for them.
This would be the penultimate test of Vic Fangio and the 49er defense. The Saints could very well get hot early and pull away, and it doesn’t take much of a lead to endanger a 49er offense that lacks big-play capability.
Solid defense and better special teams are the 49ers advantages. They’d love to get in a field-position war, which they could win. But not by much.
It’s the game that offers the most compelling matchups — a diverse, dynamic, dangerous offense against a solid, fast, athletic and mean defense.
Moreover, even the most ardent Packer fan has to say that the defense is questionable, as in, what’s going on? Aaron Rodgers is on his way to doing to the quarterback rating system what jet cars do to the speed limit on the Bonneville Salt Flats. That kind of brilliance tends to overcome defensive faults, such as poor play against the run and a leaky secondary.
Rodgers against Patrick Willis, Jermichael Finley (No. 88) against Dashon Goldson, Jordy Nelson against Carlos Rogers — one can dream. But what about a game played in the teens — not score, but temperature. What about slick field and hard leather footballs that are difficult to grasp?
What about Frank Gore behind Mike Iupati time and time again, running out the clock while Rodgers and Co. freeze up on the sideline?
That’s why they play the game and why we watch.