It’s December and even Jim Harbaugh, who never looks ahead, has agreed that it’s okay for his team to discuss the "P" word. As in playoffs.
At 9-2 and with a five-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers are but a win away from advancing to the NFC playoffs for the first time since 2002. They play the Rams this Sunday and again at the end of December, with games against the Cardinals and Seahawks slated amidst a compelling Dec. 19 game at home against the Steelers.
It is sort of a luxury for a team to step back and assess the rest of the league and plan accordingly for what should be coming in January. So here is a rundown of the 49ers' chances against potential playoff opponents, starting with the easiest and progressing to the most difficult.
It will be fun to watch this week’s game against the Saints. New Orleans is unbeaten in the Superdome. The Saints offense is clicking at a high rate of efficiency and Drew Brees is on pace to break Dan Marino’s record for most passing yards in a season.
The Lions get to face the following—an incessant, powerful offense playing on its home turf. The Saints tend to race to a lead and then let the defense focus on the quarterback, who has to deal with crowd noise. In other words, it sounds an awful lot like what Detroit tries to do in its home dome.
Nonetheless, the Lions have two tough games (Saints and Packers) on their schedule, and even a road game at Oakland poses big problems. If they make the playoffs, it will be with 10 wins. They close out their season at Green Bay and then, if they advance, will face successive road games in the playoffs.
By the time they reach San Francisco, Detroit, minus a good running game and a weakening defense, will be spent.
Prediction: Easy win in the Handshake Rematch Bowl
Jay Cutler is done for the rest of the year. For a strong, active Bears defense and the talents of Matt Forte and Devin Hester on offense and special teams respectively, it’s a weight too great to carry.
The good news is that the Bears are in the middle of their AFC West road show, with games at Kansas City and Denver coming up. They can win those. Nonetheless, they close out the season on the road against Green Bay and the Vikings, and if they do manage to get into the playoffs, they’ll hit the road again.
Teams with struggling quarterbacks who have to travel in January do not, all in all, do well. If the Bears ever made it to San Francisco, they would most likely be playing a rested, ready 49ers team that would make it very difficult for Caleb Hanie (12) and Forte to do much. Even the 49ers special teams could handle Hester.
Prediction: Easy win for San Francisco.
Matt Ryan (2) is getting better, and Julio Jones is a first-rate addition. Tony Gonzalez is well on his way to a career that will be honored in Canton. They have a chance to take control of the NFC South, but at 7-4 would most likely have to win out to do it.
But this is a dome team, and dome teams on the road in January don’t win that often. The Falcons travel to Houston to play the Texans on Sunday, and this game will be a good indicator of how they can handle grass, a good defense and pressure.
The Falcons close out the season in New Orleans and then at home against Tampa Bay. Eleven wins is not out of the question, but 10 is more likely. It’s between them and the Lions for the No. 6 or No. 5 seed. The former puts them right back in New Orleans or on a plane to San Francisco in the first round of the playoffs. The latter gets them a trip to Dallas, which will win the NFC East.
Atlanta is a team that plays much better at home and on offense. On the road against a good running team, one that makes for consistently long fields and has a good pass rush makes for a scenario that adds up to a bad fit for the Falcons.
Prediction: Not-so-easy, but not-so-difficult win for San Francisco.
I feel the Niners would love this. Tony Romo is a good quarterback, and Dez Bryant (88) and Miles Austin are first-rate. Is there a quarterback who relies on his tight end more than Romo does on Jason Witten? (Matt Ryan and Alex Smith, please reply.) But the Niners still sting from this overtime loss.
The question about this game, which is very much in the realm of the probable, is how healthy will the Cowboys defense be? Dallas has had pass coverage issues before, and outside of DeMarcus Ware, you could say that the interior linebacker play has been suspect.
Nonetheless, the Cowboys do possess the offensive potency that, with a couple of turnovers and couple of big plays, can open a big lead, and that right now seems to be anathema to the Niners. A receiving corps that is less-than-dangerous and a running game that constantly runs into eight- and nine-man fronts does not make for a comeback team.
This is the type of team against whom the Niners would have to be at their best—solid on defense, careful and just effective enough on offense, first-rate on defense.
Prediction: Toss-up, with slight favorite to the 49ers because they are playing at home and should be rested.
This team will end up ranking as one of the NFL’s best over the last 15 years, and the cover stories and national broadcast features would be coming out about now except for one thing—Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are even more explosive.
This is a veteran team that can beat you with five different receivers and a quarterback who is heady, confident and deadly accurate. Jimmy Graham (80) has been given "best tight end in the NFL" honors because of his amazing offensive stats: 67 catches, 14.3 yards per catch, eight TDs.
The Niners do not want to play the Saints in New Orleans, which should be motivation enough to carry the Niners through in their remaining games. Finishing 14-2 or 13-3 should carry them to the No. 2 seed, but a slip-up could end up costing them.
The Saints average 33 points a game and are first in yards per game (450) and first downs (24-plus per). In the Superdome, the offense resembles a large freight train on a long downhill grade: It just gets faster and faster and faster. Inexorable.
The only hope for the Niners—or any team for that matter—is to play the Saints outdoors and on grass. Even then, Brees and coach Sean Payton are a tough, tough nut to crack.
Prediction: Saints victory
This game seems slated for a January showdown on the frozen tundra. Actually, Lambeau’s field doesn’t get frozen because there are pipes underground that keep it from freezing. But the field does get slick, making footing an issue.
Toss in some wind off the North Pole and temperatures that turn Gatorade into popsicles in about four minutes, and you have an interesting matchup.
The large offensive line might be the difference for the 49ers. And a defense that is fast, active and effective against both pass and run could short-circuit the Packer offense.
Someone could slip on a short pass, the ball gets intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and the game would turn from there. Green Bay puts so much pressure on a defense, requiring it to do so much to prevent the big play that, inevitably, a breakdown occurs that leads to a score.
Aaron Rodgers (12) is the key. He finds the weak link and exploits it. The only antidote is an offense that controls the ball and scores TDs. Right now, a wounded SF offense does not qualify as that kind of squad.
Prediction: Packers as Super Bowl Champions.