The San Francisco 49ers have endured countless key injuries, but have managed to somehow keep afloat in the NFC playoff picture. With their big win last week against the Los Angeles Rams, the 49ers have improved to 5-6, and now hold the tiebreaker with the Rams thanks to their season sweep over them. That could be crucial in determining the final playoff spots in the NFC, especially if the Rams lose this week to the Arizona Cardinals. That would drop the Rams to 7-5, and if the 49ers were to defeat the Buffalo Bills this week on Monday night, the two division rivals would be separated by just one game with four games remaining. Given recent developments and what could possibly happen in the near future, the San Francisco 49ers path to the playoffs is looking more realistic.
San Francisco 49ers Playoffs Run Seems Viable
If the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers can be assumed to eventually grab playoff spots, it means that the NFC West can at most only get three of their four teams into the postseason. If 10-6 ensures a playoff berth of some type, the Saints would need just one win from here on out to get there, which seems like a given. The Buccaneers have remaining games against the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, and two against the Atlanta Falcons, and barring some type of unforeseen fiasco, they’re going to finish the season 9-7 at the absolute worst and likely get to at least 10-6. The NFC East is not going to get any wildcard spots, and if the NFC South gets one with the Buccaneers, that essentially leaves two remaining spots that the NFC West and NFC North will fight over.
That’s where the 49ers tiebreaker over the Rams looms large, especially if the Rams end up faltering down the stretch. After their Bills matchup, the 49ers play back-to-back games against the weak NFC East, which certainly looks like a welcome development after a brutal stretch of games against the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Saints, and Rams.
The 49ers lost to the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this season, so even the lowly NFC East doesn’t provide for any guaranteed victories, but the 49ers are poised to be healthier these next few weeks than they’ve been in a long time. Raheem Mostert, Deebo Samuel, Richard Sherman, and Jeff Wilson all returned from injury last week, and although the team is being cautious regarding Samuel practicing, there’s no indication of any setbacks amongst this group. Brandon Aiyuk and D.J. Jones have also been activated, adding more reinforcements to a roster that’s still among the most formidable in the league when healthy.
This game against the Bills is huge not just for the 49ers mathematical probability of a playoff berth, but as a signal that this team could be a force to be reckoned with if they do find a way to squeak into the postseason. The Bills are one of the best teams in football, and a signature win against them in December could put the rest of the football world on notice. A win over the Bills would climb the 49ers to 6-6, with matchups remaining against the Washington Football Team, Dallas Cowboys, Cardinals, and Seahawks. Barring any unforeseen catastrophes, it’s easy to imagine the momentum of a victory against the Bills carrying through to additional wins against Washington and the Cowboys. That would put the 49ers at 8-6 with two remaining games against division rivals, in contests that would likely have gigantic playoff implications.
Vikings and Bears Currently Tied With 49ers in NFC Standings
The 49ers still have a very viable path to the playoffs, especially if they are able to pull out a victory against the Bills. Currently, the 49ers are one game behind the Cardinals in the standings, who have the seventh seed in the NFC postseason picture. The Vikings and Chicago Bears also have 5-6 records, but both teams currently have the tiebreaker over the 49ers due to their superior records in conference games. The 49ers don’t play either of those two for the rest of the year, so they’ll have to gain ground on them in conference games if they remain tied in the standings with them. The 49ers are currently 3-5 in conference games, while the Vikings are 4-4 and the Bears are 5-4. Each team plays 12 conference games per season.
The 49ers remaining conference games are against Washington, the Cowboys, the Cardinals, and the Seahawks, so the Bills game might be the one from a mathematical perspective that they can most afford to lose. The 49ers path to the playoffs could still be forged without a victory over the Bills, but it would just be that much harder. The Vikings have remaining conference games against the Buccaneers, Bears, Saints, and Lions, while the Bears still have conference games against the Lions, Vikings, and Packers. If the Vikings go 2-2 during that remaining conference stretch and add a victory over the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars, that would leave them with a final record of 8-8 and an NFC record of 6-6. If the Bears go 1-2 in their remaining NFC stretch but grab two victories in their remaining AFC games against the Jaguars and Houston Texans, that would put them at 8-8 overall with an NFC record of 6-6 as well. Just looking at their remaining schedules, a reasonable outcome would be to conclude that both the Vikings and Bears could finish at 8-8.
No NFC Team Currently With at Least Seven Losses Has a Realistic Path To the Playoffs
Of course, strange things happen in the NFL, but the point is that for the final playoff seed to be attained, an 8-8 record looks like the bare minimum. If a team in the NFC East gets to 8-8, that team is going to win the division, so none of those four teams need to be considered for a wildcard spot. Of the remaining teams in the NFC fighting for that final playoff spot, someone like the Falcons or Lions could mathematically make a run by losing at most only one more game this season, since they’re both currently 4-7. That seems unlikely, however. The Falcons have remaining games against the Saints, Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, and two against the Buccaneers. They’re not going 4-1 during that stretch, which seems like the likely requirement to get into the playoffs. The Lions have remaining games against the Bears, Packers, Tennessee Titans, Buccaneers, and Vikings. It seems almost equally implausible for them to pull off a needed 4-1 outcome from that stretch.
49ers, Rams, Cardinals, Vikings, and Bears Competing for Two Playoff Spots
If the Packers and Saints both seem like unequivocal favorites for division crowns, the NFC East winner gets the fourth seed, and the Seahawks probably need to win just one remaining game to ultimately gain any type of playoff berth, that leaves the 49ers, Rams, Cardinals, Buccaneers, Vikings, and Bears as the truly viable contenders for those three wildcard spots. Setting aside a spot for the Buccaneers leaves two remaining spots for a combination of the 49ers, Rams, Cardinals, Vikings, and Bears. The Rams have remaining games against the New England Patriots, New York Jets, Seahawks, and two against the Cardinals. The Cardinals have games against the New York Giants, Eagles, 49ers, and two against the Rams that they still have to play.
The 49ers tiebreaker over the Rams could be gigantic. If the Cardinals were to beat the Rams twice, the Rams would not only need to be close to perfect in their other remaining games, but they’d not have any tiebreakers for their other division teams vying for wildcard spots, assuming the Seahawks end up winning the division outright. The Rams could win the rest of their non-Cardinals games, lose twice against the Cardinals, and finish the season 10-6, though, and that’s likely what they would need to do to make the playoffs at all in those circumstances, since either the 49ers or Cardinals could finish with a 9-7 record and top them in that tiebreak scenario.
What the San Francisco 49ers Need To Do To Make the Playoffs
It’s a lot of variables to digest, but just from looking at the remaining schedules of NFC teams still in contention for wildcard spots, it appears like 9-7 would most likely be enough to get a spot. 8-8 would be a bit dicier, as it increases the likelihood of someone losing out on a tiebreaker, but 9-7 is really the mark that seems like a safe bet to make the NFC playoffs. The 49ers path to the playoffs comes down to achieving that 9-7 record. If the 49ers can go at least 2-1 against the trio of the Bills, Cowboys, and Washington, that would put them at 7-7 with games left against the Cardinals and Seahawks. There is already some buzz about the possibility of George Kittle and Jimmy Garoppolo being able to return by the end of the regular season, and that speculation would likely escalate if the Cardinals and Seahawks games end up looking as though they’d have huge playoff ramifications. Along with the Rams playing the Cardinals in the final week of the regular season, those final NFC West games are likely going to determine who from that division joins the Seahawks in the playoffs representing the NFC West.
The 49ers really only have a favorable tiebreaker against the Rams out of the remaining playoff contenders, so under most scenarios, they’d probably not make the playoffs at 8-8. They lost to the Cardinals already this season, and the most conference wins they could possibly finish with this season is six. The Bears would need just one more conference win to force a potential tie in that category, while the Vikings would need two more, and since the Bears and Vikings play each other one more time, at least one of them is mathematically guaranteed another conference win. Strength of victory tiebreakers would then be implemented after the conference wins, and that’s too far out to even theorize on at this point regarding how that would unfold.
In conclusion, the 49ers most likely need to finish out the year 4-1 to make the playoffs, meaning they can afford just one loss amongst the Bills, Washington, the Cowboys, the Cardinals, and the Seahawks. It’s daunting, but certainly not impossible, especially as the team continues to get healthier and key pieces are able to successfully return to the lineup. A 49ers playoff run suddenly looks more realistic after their most recent win against the Rams, and a win against the Bills would bolster their chances of eventually making the postseason even more.
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