So you’re such a 49ers Faithful you’ve booked a Los Angeles beach house for the next month. You’re dropping anchor for the 49ers’ path to a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
You (gulp) love L.A.!
Not only will the 49ers cap their regular season Sunday against the Rams, but a win could trigger a return to SoFi Stadium, perhaps in the wild-card round the following weekend and surely in a Super Bowl LVI appearance Feb. 13.
Too optimistic? Of course. We’ll explore other playoff possibilities in a few paragraphs. But first …
The 49ers (9-7) don’t even own a playoff berth, yet. For that, they need to either, (a), beat the NFC West-leading Rams (12-4), or, (b) have the New Orleans Saints (8-8) lose at the Atlanta Falcons (7-9).
If the 49ers lose and Saints win, the 49ers are done and packing up their Santa Clara lockers next Monday. That’s because the Saints would join the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles as the NFC’s wild-card teams, by virtue of a conference-record tiebreaker (the Eagles are 7-4, 49ers 6-5, Saints 6-5).
Winning in L.A. (this Sunday’s trip) would secure the 49ers’ current position as the NFC’s sixth of seven seeds. Backing into the playoffs and No. 7 seed would work via a Saints’ loss.
And, to cover all the bases: A tie by either the 49ers or Saints would move the Niners into the playoffs, but in the unlikely event both games finish tied, the 49ers would be on the outside looking in.
Where to, then? Which flights will you book (and fear airline cancellation)? What fan base must you troll among your 36 Twitter followers?
— Ivan Urena (@Ivan_Urena1) January 3, 2022
There are 24 scenarios involving the 49ers in the playoff field, and, simply put, here at the possibilities of where they might play:
At Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(NFC South champion, 12-4)
This is the 49ers’ projected matchup based on current standings, with them at No. 6 and the defending-champion Bucs at No. 3.
Tom Brady’s arm strength and accuracy remain phenomenal, as evident by the lasers he threw in Sunday’s comeback over the New York Jets, a win overshadowed by Antonio Brown’s disturbing exit.
You simply can’t make too big a deal about Brady. The San Mateo native won ring No. 7 last season, after the 49ers rebuffed his 2020 offseason interest.
His supporting cast has been decimated. Out injured are wide receiver Chris Godwin, pass rusher Shaq Barrett, linebacker Lavonte David, running back Leonard Fournette and former 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman.
The 49ers won their last trip to Tampa, the opening game of their 2019 season march to the Super Bowl. This could open their postseason march to the Super Bowl.
This matchup doesn’t happen if both teams win Sunday. If the 49ers win, they’ll need Carolina to do so, too. If the 49ers lose, they’ll obviously need a Falcons’ win along with a Cowboys’ victory.
At Dallas Cowboys
(NFC East champion, 11-5)
It’s time a new generation experiences the 49ers-Cowboys postseason rivalry. Of their past matchups (1970, ’71, ’81, ’92, ’93, ’94), the 49ers only won those in 1981 (“The Catch”) and 1994 (Steve Young victory lap) for the NFC Championship en route to their first and last Super Bowl victories.
Dallas’ regular-season finale against the Eagles was flexed from Sunday to Saturday night. The Cowboys can jump up to the No. 2 seed with a win, putting pressure on the Rams and Buccaneers to overtake them Sunday.
Comeback Player of the Year candidates Dak Prescott and Nick Bosa could be a fun matchup in the Cowboys’ backfield (the Bengals’ Joe Burrow may win the COPY award, though). Not so fun for either Trey Lance or Jimmy Garoppolo will be the sight of, (a) rookie Pro Bowl linebacker Micah Parsons on patrol, and, (b), Trevon Diggs looking to add to his 11 interceptions.
The 49ers are 0-2 at Dallas in postseason action (1971, ’93), and even though they lost there last December with an injury-ravaged roster, the 49ers did win at AT&T Stadium to open the 2014 season in front of a throng of 49ers fans.
This matchup only happens if the Cowboys and the 49ers both win, along with the Buccaneers and the Seahawks.
At Los Angeles (12-4)
The 49ers, as either the sixth or seventh seed, can find themselves playing at the Rams in the wild-card round.
But first comes Sunday’s matchup, and the 49ers will look to sweep the Rams in their home-and-away series for a third straight season.
Every matchup will be overplayed, such as: Shanahan vs. Sean McVay; Matthew Stafford vs. interceptions; Jimmy Garoppolo vs. his sprained thumb; Lance vs. encore expectations; Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Josh Norman (if not still benched); Aaron Donald vs. Daniel Brunskill; Giants vs. Dodgers; NorCal vs. SoCal; our water vs. their sunshine.
These franchises have met 144 times since 1950, with the 49ers leading 74-67-3, including a 30-3 home win for the NFC Championship by their 1989 team en route to a Super Bowl rout of Denver.
For a Nos. 2 vs. 7 matchup, the Eagles must beat the Cowboys, followed by wins from the Rams and the Falcons. For a Nos. 3 vs. 6 pairing, the 49ers must win, along with a combination of wins by either the Cowboys-Panthers-Seahawks or Eagles-Bucs-Seahawks.
At Arizona (11-5)
The Cardinals can win the NFC West (first time since 2015, fourth time since moving to Arizona in 1988). It will take a 49ers’ upset of the Rams, coupled with the Cardinals winning at home Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks (6-10).
Arizona’s annual late-season swoon included three consecutive defeats before Kyler Murray fueled Sunday’s 25-22 win at Dallas. The Cardinals don’t have wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins or defensive menace J.J. Watt, but they still have talent – and the 49ers’ number.
Coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals swept the 49ers this season, winning 17-10 on Oct. 10 in Lance’s starting debut and rallying behind backup Colt McCoy (and three turnovers by the 49ers) for a 31-17 win at Levi’s Stadium on Nov. 7.
You think George Kittle would mind reuniting with safety Budda Baker? Or Lance would like one more shot at the goal line against Isaiah Simmons? Or Bosa would chase once more after Murray?
The 49ers, who’ve never faced the Cardinals in the playoffs, hold a 32-29 edge in a series dating back to 1951, when the Cardinals were based in Chicago.
This wild-card matchup becomes reality only if the 49ers win, coupled with wins by the Cardinals and Buccaneers.