The San Francisco 49ers shut out the St. Louis Rams Sunday to reach their first playoffs since the 2002 season. With three NFC West opponents still on their schedule, the 49ers could very well finish 2011 with a 13-3 record.
If they win those games and also defeat Pittsburgh, they’ll finish 14-2.
Both scenarios would almost guarantee them a first round bye in the playoffs, but this could actually prove detrimental to their success.
Of their 53-man roster, only 12 players have seen postseason action.
The 49ers are made up mostly of their own draft picks, who obviously haven’t experienced success in the NFL until this season.
I am not suggesting they roll over for the remainder of the regular season, but their lack of playoff experience could make a Wild Card game appearance beneficial.
There are ups and downs to both situations.
If they play in the Wild Card round, they risk losing and having their season ended prematurely. But, a win in such a game would provide confidence and a measuring stick for improvements.
Having home field advantage and a bye means they will get an extra week off but then have to host a team that’s won a playoff game. This could present theoretical matchups with either New Orleans or Dallas—two perennial playoff teams that won’t be shaken by the moment.
Which situation would benefit the 49ers more?
My main fear is that the heightened playoff pressure will negatively impact the team and force them to commit uncharacteristic mistakes.
If they were limping in as the last playoff team with a 9-7 record, my expectations might not be so high. But San Francisco has put together an eye-opening 10-2 record, so wanting more than a first round exit should be understandable.
49ers fans have all but forgotten what the playoffs feel like. We’re excited, but our nerves are rattled.
In either case, it would behoove Jim Harbaugh to take a smart approach to playing time over the next four weeks. I would love to see some second-teamers play against Arizona in Week 14.
Give Alex Smith the start, but put Colin Kaepernick back there and give him some game reps.
Patrick Willis left the St. Louis game with a hamstring injury and did not return. It’s not supposed to be serious, but there’s no reason to risk more injury against a Cardinals team that just beat Dallas.
The 49ers are used to going home in December and relaxing in January. Their bodies are not used to the prolonged output and adrenaline that will soon arrive.
They should bring their starters back against Pittsburgh, because the big knock on the 49ers is they don’t have a signature win. They’ve had impressive moments, but their two losses were against playoff teams—Baltimore and Dallas.
The only team they’ve defeated with a decent shot at the playoffs is Detroit, a team that is reeling after two straight losses.
The 49ers need a strong showing against the Steelers to prove they belong in the playoffs and can make a run.
The excitement of clinching the division wore off for me after about a day. Now, I am just freaked out and anxious about the impending playoff scenarios in store for the 49ers.