At 9-1 on the year, the 49ers are already guaranteed of having their best season since 2013. But since they’ve played so well, expectations have changed. They’re on top of both the NFC and the NFC West, and now the goal is to not just make it to the playoffs, but earn a high seed.
The last two games — an overtime loss to the Seahawks and a comeback win over the Cardinals — have been challenging for the 49ers. What’s ahead is a bigger test than any that have come before it, though.
They’ve been resilient enough to still be favored in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. Yet even though the 49ers have only lost once, FiveThirtyEight still only gives them a 56 percent chance of winning the division. That’s almost entirely due to the difficulty of the remaining games on their schedule, specifically the next three.
First, they host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football, then they travel to take on Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, followed by a road game against the New Orleans Saints. Those three games aren’t just a large obstacle — they could be unprecedented.
The 49ers will face a potentially historic three-game stretch
The Packers, Ravens, and Saints are all currently 8-2 on the season. Provided the Ravens and Saints don’t lose before playing the 49ers, each will boast a winning percentage of .800 or higher. No team has ever played three consecutive games against opponents of .800 or greater this late in the season, per Nick Wagoner of ESPN.
On top of that, only a handful of teams have faced that kind of competition at all with about a third of the season left:
What's more, only four teams -- the 2007 Lions, 1999 Browns, 1990 Redskins and 1990 Vikings -- in the Super Bowl era have played three such games (not consecutively) in their 11th game or later.— Nick Wagoner (@nwagoner) November 19, 2019
While the Packers, Ravens, and Saints have an average win percentage of .800, the rest of the 49ers’ opponents thus far have an average win percentage of .382. After those games, San Francisco’s schedule the rest of the way isn’t a cakewalk, either. They also have to play the Seahawks (the only team to beat them so far) again, the Rams again, and the Falcons, who have been playing better and better as the season progresses.
What about the rest of the NFC West?
The Seahawks are just one game behind the 49ers, while the Rams are three games back in the division. The Rams are currently just outside the NFC playoff picture, but they’re at the top of the teams in the hunt.
The rest of the NFC standings look like this, at the moment:
The good news for San Francisco is neither the Rams nor Seahawks have a cupcake schedule for the rest of the year. The bad news is neither of them faces anything close to the 49ers’ upcoming three-game stretch.
Of the two, the Rams will have the hardest time making a late-season push, especially given their lackluster games against the Steelers (a loss) and Bears (a win) in the last two weeks. They have the Ravens up next and will play the Cowboys in mid-December. They also have to battle the 49ers and Seahawks (both of whom have beaten them once already) and two games against the sneaky-dangerous Cardinals.
Meanwhile, Seattle ends the season at home against the 49ers. If the first game was anything to go by, the rematch — which went down to the wire and nearly ended in a tie — could be another beautiful mess.
The Seahawks’ next-toughest remaining opponent is probably the Vikings. They also go on the road to meet the Eagles and Panthers, and will play for a second time against the Cardinals and Rams.
But the 49ers’ slate is daunting by comparison. There’s a real reason why the Ravens, Packers, and Saints were all picked when we were trying to predict who would be the first team to beat the then-undefeated 49ers. They’re all formidable opponents and it would not be surprising to see Seattle gain ground, or even take the lead, in the NFC West over the next three weeks.
It’s time to see what Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers are truly made of. Right now, they control their own destiny. The teams they are facing are largely the same teams they’re competing against for playoff seeding.
They’re in line to win the division and earn a top seed in the conference, which comes with the all-important first-round bye. The 49ers, notably, had their regular bye week all the way back in Week 4, and have been banged up enough that a week off is sorely needed.
If they can’t get a win or two out of the upcoming stretch, then they’ll have to finish out the regular season with an imposing Week 17 game against the Seahawks. And they would certainly prefer if a top seed and the division were locked down by then.