San Francisco 49ers Postseason Path Breakdown

The San Francisco 49ers enter their Week 14 matchup against the Washington Football Team at 5-7. Without a victory over Washington, and really baring a situation where the 49ers win out, their season is probably over.

San Francisco 49ers Postseason Path Breakdown

A loss to Washington would put the 49ers at 5-8, with no ability to salvage a winning season from a campaign that has been tumultuous due to various injuries. It would not eliminate them mathematically, but finding a potential path to the playoffs becomes dubious if the team does not win out at this point. However, the 49ers still somewhat control their destiny in the sense that winning out and earning a 9-7 record seems like it could be enough to grab that final wildcard spot. Here is a breakdown of the San Francisco 49ers postseason path and how they can reach the playoffs this season.

NFC West

Given how the NFC West looks right now, and with the games remaining on the schedule, the San Francisco 49ers postseason path probably requires them winning their remaining games. If the 49ers win out, they could surpass the Los Angeles Rams in the standings if the Rams were to go 1-3 to finish the season because the 49ers have the tiebreaker with them thanks to their two victories over them this season. The Rams remaining games are against the New England Patriots, New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks, and Arizona Cardinals. The only one of those games that looks like a definite win is the Jets.

It would be more difficult for the 49ers to catch the Seahawks in the standings, though, because even if they were to beat them in Week 17, the 49ers lost to them earlier this season and hence would not have that head-to-head tiebreaker. The Seahawks could go 2-2 from here on out and finish ahead of the 49ers in the NFC West standings. Along with that Week 17 matchup with the 49ers, the Seahawks still have games against the Jets, Washington, and the Rams. The Seahawks are likely going to grab at least two more wins, so the 49ers do not have much of a chance to squeak out a division title at this point.

49ers Control Their Destiny Over Cardinals

The wildcard chase, though, particularly for the final spot, still seems like it could be obtained by the 49ers if they were to win out. Looking ahead, the Week 16 game between the 49ers and the Cardinals looks like it could have serious ramifications. If the 49ers win their next two games to enter that game at 7-7, the Cardinals could still win their next two games to head into that matchup at 8-6 and end up going into the final week of the regular season with an identical record to the 49ers with a loss to them in Week 16. If the 49ers were to win out from this point forward, they would finish the regular season with a 9-7 overall record, a 4-2 division record, and a 7-5 conference record. The Cardinals would conclude their season with a 9-7 overall record, a 3-3 division record, and a 7-5 conference record if they won all their remaining games not against the 49ers. The division record would give the 49ers the tiebreaker over them with a season series split, so if the 49ers were to win out, they are guaranteed to finish ahead of the Cardinals, no matter what the Cardinals do in their non-49ers games from here on out. That Cardinals revelation is important because it does not appear that the NFC West is going to get all three of the wildcard spots.

Wildcard Breakdown

With the New Orleans Saints already clinching a playoff berth and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently at 7-5, the NFC South looks like they are going to get one of the conference’s wildcard spots. The Buccaneers have remaining games against the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, and two against the Atlanta Falcons, so it appears unlikely the 49ers could pass them in the standings. The NFC East doesn’t look like it will produce a wildcard team, so that leaves the 49ers needing to worry about leapfrogging the Chicago Bears, Lions, and Vikings.


If the 49ers were to win out, the Lions would have to win out as well to keep pace with San Francisco, and they have remaining games against the Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, Buccaneers, and Vikings. That is a tall order, and the 49ers would almost certainly be able to count on one of those four teams handing the Lions a loss. However, for the sake of a hypothetical, assume that the Lions were to defy the odds by ultimately winning out. It would give the Vikings a loss, meaning that the Vikings would finish with an overall record of 9-7 at the absolute best. The Lions would also hand the Buccaneers a loss, meaning that the absolute best overall record the Buccaneers could finish with would be 10-6.


The Bears would need to win out as well to keep pace with the 49ers, and they have remaining games against the Houston Texans, Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Packers. That final game could involve the Packers battling for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs along with the only first-round bye, so any hope of the Bears getting a win against a team resting starters for the playoffs is most likely not applicable. In looking at that remaining schedule and factoring in the likely circumstances of those games, the Bears probably aren’t going to win out. However, what would happen, hypothetically, if the Bears improbably won out? There is a scenario where both the Bears and Lions could win out, which would make it so that the Vikings could finish with no better than an 8-8 record. That scenario would knock the Vikings out of the playoffs since there are only three wildcard spots, and the Packers are already guaranteed to finish no worse than 9-7. As unlikely as it may be for both the Bears and Lions to win out given their remaining schedules, it’s still mathematically possible for both to make the playoffs. In that way, they are in a similar situation to 49ers, needing to not only win out but also have a few other games outside their direct control go in their favor.

Last Word on Lions and Bears Wildcard Breakdown

If the 49ers, Lions, and Bears were all to win out and finish with identical 9-7 records, all three teams would also finish with 7-5 conference records. The Bears and Lions would then proceed to go into a division tiebreaking scenario as the next step. The Bears would have a division record of 3-3 by winning out, as would the Lions, making matters even more complicated by pointing out that neither team has a season sweep over the other. In the minimum of four common games between the Lions and Bears, the Bears would finish with a 5-3 record, while the Lions would have a 4-4 record, so the Bears would eventually get the tiebreaker over the Lions in this scenario.

Regarding how this relates to the 49ers, because they would have the same conference records as the Bears and Lions, and haven’t played either this season, and don’t have four common games amongst them, the tiebreak would next be the strength of victory, which is impossible to speculate on at this point. The Cardinals lost to the Lions earlier this season, so the Lions would get the tiebreaker over the Cardinals if they were to finish with identical records. The Bears would have the tiebreaker over the Lions, and the Lions would have the tiebreaker over the Cardinals. The 49ers would have the tiebreaker over the Cardinals. They would also be either directly above or below the Bears based on the strength of victory. Neither the Lions nor the Cardinals would be getting into the playoffs ahead of either the 49ers or Bears. If the 49ers or Bears were then able to finish no worse than eighth in the NFC, with the Vikings, Lions, and Cardinals all behind them in the standings and no team that is currently the sixth seed or above fell out of the playoffs, one of them would make the playoffs. That’s a hypothetical involving the Bears and Lions both winning out, and the main takeaway from that scenario is that the Vikings would get eliminated from the playoff picture.

Vikings Are Probably the Biggest Threat To the 49ers for the Last Wildcard Spot

In terms of higher probability situations, though, the Vikings pose the biggest threat to the 49ers right now in being able to hold them off for the final playoff berth. The Vikings have remaining games against the Buccaneers, Bears, Saints, and Lions and can still afford a loss out of those four to keep pace with the 49ers. If the Vikings were to finish the season with an overall record of 9-7, they would have a conference record of 7-5, given all their remaining games are against conference opponents. That scenario would leave both the Vikings and 49ers with identical 9-7 overall records and 7-5 conference records, initiating a tiebreaker based on the winning percentage in a minimum of four common games. The 49ers and Vikings have had common games against the Packers, Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, and Saints this season. The 49ers would be 2-3 in those games. The Vikings would be 1-4 at worst or 2-3 at best depending on how they fare against the Saints in Week 16. If the records in those common games also finish identical to one another, the strength of victory then gets used as the next tiebreaker, and it’s way too early to speculate on that. The Vikings essentially control their fate, though. If they win out, they are in the playoffs, but with matchups against the Buccaneers and Saints, winning out seems like a difficult task for them.

Last Word

Mathematically speaking, the highest the 49ers could finish the season is in the third seed in the NFC, but that would take the Rams losing three of their final four games, as well as the Seahawks losing three of their next four games. The 49ers would surpass the Seahawks if both were to finish with 9-7 records because, in that scenario, the 49ers would have a 4-2 division record while the Seahawks would have a 3-3 division record. Both of those outcomes with the Rams and Seahawks seem extremely unlikely, though, and if both the Seahawks and Rams look like solid bets to make the postseason, as well as the Buccaneers from the NFC South, that leaves one wildcard spot open for either the 49ers, Cardinals, Vikings, Lions, or Bears.

The San Francisco 49ers postseason path probably requires them winning their remaining their games to have a decent shot at the playoffs. The 49ers can eliminate the Cardinals if they win out because one of those remaining games is against the Cardinals. After tying the season series, the 49ers would finish with a superior division record. The Vikings, Bears, and Lions each has plenty of obstacles to overcome to secure a playoff berth. Of course, all of this is dependent on the 49ers winning their remaining games, but if they can take care of business and a few other variables fall their way, a San Francisco 49ers postseason berth can still happen.

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