The 49ers (8-7) would have nearly clinched a playoff berth had they been able to beat the Titans in Week 16. They weren’t able to earn a victory, as Jimmy Garoppolo struggled through a thumb injury in a 20-17 defeat.
As a result, San Francisco’s path to the NFL postseason got a bit tougher. The team is still in control of its destiny, but it has minimal room for error and will need some help should they slip up against either the Texans (who they’re expected to beat) or the Rams, who they beat earlier in the season but are underdogs against in Week 18.
It’s also worth noting that Garoppolo may not be able to play in Week 17 because of his thumb injury. That means that Trey Lance will be tasked with leading the 49ers to a win to keep them in front of the glut of the NFC’s other seven- and eight-win teams, including the Eagles (8-7), Vikings (7-8), Saints (7-8) and Falcons (7-8).
If Lance starts the final two games of the regular season, that may make the 49ers’ offense a bit more volatile. It also may be more explosive thanks to his scrambling ability. Either way, the 49ers will probably need to win at least once more to have a clear path to a playoff spot. Here’s what needs to happen for them to lock up a playoff spot in Week 17 and beyond.
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1. 49ers go 2-0 to finish 10-7
The 49ers are in control of their playoff destiny. If they win their final two games of the season, they will automatically make the playoffs, as there will only be a maximum of seven NFC teams that can finish with double-digit wins in 2021.
As such, getting to 10 wins would seal the deal for San Francisco. It would also basically guarantee them the No. 6 seed in the NFL playoffs regardless of what happens with the other teams in the conference. The Cardinals have two head-to-head victories over them while the 49ers beat the Eagles earlier in the season.
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2. 49ers win at least once, Saints lose (or tie) at least once
San Francisco will still have a great chance to make the postseason even if they have a bump in the road. The 49ers can go 1-1 and still make the playoffs as either the No. 6 or No. 7 seed.
To make the playoffs with just one win, the 49ers need to hope that the Saints suffer a loss or tie in one of their last two games. The Saints are the only member of the group of 7-8 teams that could catch them and that would have a chance to beat them in a tiebreaker, as the 49ers have head-to-head wins against the Falcons and Vikings.
Meanwhile, the 49ers and Saints haven’t played this year, but the 49ers have posted a 2-4 record against common opponents this year. If the Saints beat the Falcons in Week 18, they would be 3-3 against common opponents, which would give the Saints the advantage in this category.
New Orleans is favored to win in both Week 17 against the Panthers and Week 18 against the Falcons. As such, the 49ers will find themselves on the playoff bubble if they post a .500 split to end the season and the Saints can take care of business against both of their divisional opponents.
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NFL playoff picture 2021
|1.||Kansas City Chiefs||11-4||AFC West|
|6.||New England Patriots||9-6||N/a|
In the hunt: Ravens (8-7), Chargers (8-7), Raiders (8-7), Steelers (7-7-1), Browns (7-8), Broncos (7-8)
|1.||Green Bay Packers||12-3||NFC North|
|2.||Dallas Cowboys||11-4||NFC East|
|3.||Los Angeles Rams||11-4||Playoff berth|
|4.||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||11-4||NFC South|
|5.||Arizona Cardinals||10-5||Playoff berth|
|6.||San Francisco 49ers||8-7||N/a|
In the hunt: Vikings (7-8), Saints (7-8), Falcons (7-8)