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How the 49ers could have missed the playoffs (but didn’t)

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It wasn’t going to happen anyway, but it was fun to talk about.

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Update, 12/15: The 49ers, surprisingly, fell to the Falcons, completing the first step in being eliminated. But the Rams didn’t hold up their end of the deal, losing to the Cowboys. That means the 49ers have clinched a spot in the playoffs.

At 11-2, it’s almost silly that the San Francisco 49ers still stand a chance of being the fifth seed in the NFC playoff picture. It’s even sillier that they haven’t yet clinched a postseason berth.

That’s nearly a formality at this point, as all they have to do is win a single game to be guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. However, seeding could come down to their Week 17 rematch against the rival Seattle Seahawks.

The 49ers could earn the top seed, which would give them a first-round bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Or they could settle for No. 5 seed, which would mean a road game in the Wild Card Round.

Or, they could miss the playoffs altogether!

That’s right: the NFC-leading 49ers can still be eliminated from the playoffs, albeit through very convoluted means that are unlikely to happen. But it could, so let’s go over what it would take for the 49ers to get left out of the postseason.

Step One: Lose out

For the 49ers to miss the playoffs, they don’t just need to add losses to their overall record. They need to ruin their conference record for tiebreak purposes.

The 49ers play three consecutive NFC opponents to close out the season: the Falcons, Rams, and Seahawks. They need to lose all three to set this in motion:

  • Week 15: Lose to the Falcons
  • Week 16: Lose to the Rams
  • Week 17: Lose to the Seahawks (again)

Then the 49ers would finish with an 11-5 record.

Step Two: Divisional rivals have to win

To ensure the 49ers don’t secure the NFC West title, the 10-3 Seahawks need to win it. In order to do that, the Seahawks have to beat the 49ers for the second time this season and win at least one other game.

In other words, the Seahawks have to:

  • Week 15: Beat the Panthers OR
  • Week 16: Beat the Cardinals AND
  • Week 17: Beat the 49ers

That’d give the Seahawks the NFC West title with either a 12-4 or 13-3 record.

Then the 8-5 Rams come into play. They have to win out completely, including against the 49ers:

  • Week 15: Beat the Cowboys
  • Week 16: Beat the 49ers
  • Week 17: Beat the Cardinals

This would put the 49ers and Rams both at 11-5. They would also have split their season series, would have the same divisional record, AND they would share the same record in common games.

That means the tiebreaker would go down to best conference record, which the Rams would win. Their NFC losses would be a total of three: to the Buccaneers, Seahawks, and 49ers. The 49ers would have four NFC losses: to the Falcons, Rams, and Seahawks (x2).

All of that would land the Rams one of the wild card spots.

Step three: Fall behind the NFC North

To lose out on the other wild card spot, the 49ers would have to finish behind the Packers and Vikings. The 49ers would automatically own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Green Bay for their 37-8 victory over the Packers in Week 12. So the Packers would need to finish with a better record than the 49ers.

At 10-3, the Packers already have a win up on the 9-4 Vikings, but this scenario also calls for the Vikings to beat the Packers in Week 16. If the Vikings win out, they could wind up at 12-4 alongside the Packers, but Green Bay would own the divisional record tiebreaker over Minnesota in that case.

To win the NFC North, the Packers need to win two of their next three, while Minnesota’s part in this includes beating the Packers.

That means the Packers’ next three weeks would have to look like this:

  • Week 15: Beat the Bears
  • Week 16: Lose to the Vikings
  • Week 17: Beat the Lions

That puts the Packers at 12-4 and would give them the NFC North championship.

Now on to the Vikings. They can win out, but to keep the 49ers from making the playoffs, Minnesota would only need to win its last two games.

That looks like:

  • Week 15: Either result vs. Chargers
  • Week 16: Beat the Packers
  • Week 17: Beat the Bears

Losing to the Chargers but beating the Bears and Packers would make the Vikings even with the 49ers at 11-5. Once again, the 49ers would lose the tiebreak due to conference records. Minnesota would have three NFC losses: to Chicago, Green Bay, and Seattle, while the 49ers would have four (to the Falcons, Rams, and Seahawks twice).

If the Vikings happened to win all three of their remaining games, they would be tied with the Packers and would lose the tiebreak. They would still have a better record than the 49ers (12-4 vs. 11-5) for the wild card spot. They would get the fifth seed while the Rams would get the sixth seed.

How the seeding looks in the end

The final records for the Saints and the winners of the NFC East are not a factor in the 49ers missing the playoffs, so we’ll list them with their best possible record for the purposes of this seeding.

Here’s how the NFC playoffs would look if all of this were to happen:

  1. Saints (13-3)
  2. Seahawks (12-4)
  3. Packers (12-4)
  4. Cowboys/Eagles (9-7)
  5. Rams (11-5)
  6. Vikings (11-5)

San Francisco, also at 11-5, would be on the outside looking in. No other scenarios would work for eliminating the 49ers, though the seeding could change a bit depending on how the Saints and Vikings perform.

The 49ers would have the best record of those teams missing the NFC playoffs, but they’d be at home while the six teams above are fighting for the Super Bowl.