San Francisco 49ers

NFL Playoffs: the 49ers’ quest for a first round bye

Seattle somehow lost to the Redskins at home on Sunday, which means that at worst the 49ers will end up in a tie for the NFC West division championship. And that’s if they lose their last six games of the season (including Thursday’s game against Baltimore) to finish 9-7.

That’s not going to happen, but when you’re five games ahead of the competition with so much time to go, the goals get bigger. The Niners are looking for a first round bye in the playoffs, and are in a great position to do so.

49ers’ remaining schedule 

The 49ers have it pretty easy, except for one game* (team records in parentheses).

12/4: St. Louis (2-9)
12/11: @ Arizona (4-7)
12/19: Pittsburgh (8-3)
12/24*: @ Seattle (4-7)
12/31: @ St. Louis (2-9)

* Okay, playing in Seattle on a Saturday after the Monday night game against the Steelers might be slightly difficult.

The competition

Green Bay already has one of the top two spots locked down (No. 1 unless something crazy happens). If the Giants can upset the Saints in the Superdome, the 49ers stay two games ahead of the non-Packers competition. Here’s how it stands right now (conference record in parentheses, because after head-to-head it’s the first tiebreaker):

New Orleans: 7-3 (4-3)
Dallas: 7-4 (5-2)
Chicago: 7-4 (6-3)
Atlanta: 7-4 (5-4)
Detroit: 7-4 (5-4)
New York: 6-4 (3-4)

The 49ers are 7-1 against NFC opponents. If they lose to the Steelers and win the rest of their games (all against the NFC West), they’ll be the No. 2 seed, even if the Saints win out and also finish 13-3.

Monday night’s game between the New Orleans Saints and the New York Giants is huge for San Francisco. Not only do the Saints have a chance to be the only NFC team within a game of the Niners, but if they lose Dallas becomes the 49ers’ biggest competition for a week off between the regular season and the playoffs.

The Cowboys’ 27-24 overtime win over the Niners was deemed a good learning experience at the time, but if Dallas and San Francisco end the season with identical records, the first tiebreaker comes into play: head-to-head record.

All this puts Jim Harbaugh in an optimal position. None of the next five games will be of the must-win variety, but if they screw around they’ll face all sorts of problematic scenarios. However, if the 49ers take care of business and win four games against below average teams, they’ll get an extra week to rest and prepare in January.

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