The 49ers had twice as good of a chance at earning a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs last season as they will in 2020. With the postseason being expanded to include an additional team in each conference, only the No. 1 seeds in the NFC and AFC will get the first week of the playoffs off.
San Francisco was the No. 1 seed in the NFC last season, so it still would have had a first-round bye under the new setup. But if the 49ers want that title — and benefit — again, some games on their 2020 schedule will carry more weight than others.
With that in mind, here are the five most critical games on the 49ers’ schedule in terms of their chances of earning the No. 1 seed in the conference.
Week 1 vs. Arizona Cardinals
NFL history has not been kind to teams that lost in the Super Bowl the prior season. If the 49ers want to buck that trend, it’s critical they get off to a good start. Their schedule sets up nicely in that respect, as one could argue three of their four easiest games occur within the first five weeks.
Week 1 against the Cardinals is not one of those games.
Arizona should be much improved in 2020, and let’s not forget, the Cardinals pushed the 49ers to the brink in both of their meetings last season. Kyler Murray is no longer a rookie, and now he has DeAndre Hopkins to throw to. This is a sneaky, challenging game for San Francisco, which could set the tone for the rest of the season.
Week 4 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
In the first of five prime-time games on their 2020 schedule, the 49ers will host the Eagles at Levi’s Stadium in Week 4. San Francisco will be coming off consecutive weeks playing on the East Coast — against inferior opponents — which could potentially leave the 49ers susceptible to a letdown. It also represents the first of three consecutive home games for San Francisco, meaning the 49ers have a good chance to piece together a winning streak early in the year.
The Eagles are the toughest team San Francisco will face during that three-game stretch, and Doug Peterson is one of the more creative play-callers in the league. Assuming both teams enter the game healthy, the 49ers are almost certain to be favored, but Philadelphia has the weapons on both sides of the ball to cause problems for San Francisco. It’s certainly possible the Eagles will be the most talented team the 49ers face in the first half of their season.
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Week 8 at Seattle Seahawks
If the Eagles aren’t the 49ers’ most talented opponent in the first half, then it’s probably the Seahawks. As for why this one is important, well, it’s the same old story.
San Francisco and Seattle form arguably the best rivalry in the modern NFL. In order to be the No. 1 seed in the conference, the 49ers must first win their own division.
Last year, they won — by a matter of inches — in Seattle to clinch the NFC West. The same might be required in 2020.
Week 10 at New Orleans Saints
Yes, the 49ers host the Green Bay Packers on a short week in Week 10, but the two games that bookend that matchup seem far more likely to determine San Francisco’s place in the conference hierarchy. Much like the Seahawks, the Saints have a tremendous home-field advantage. And, just like the Seahawks, the Saints were defeated by the 49ers on their home field last season.
Though New Orleans stumbled in the playoffs, the Saints were the 49ers’ top competition in the NFC last season, and seem likely to be so once again. They are considered the two favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LV, and their Week 10 matchup might determine which one of them it is.
While it’s obviously not ideal for San Francisco to have to play in New Orleans for a second consecutive season, one could argue the schedule sets up much better for the 49ers this time around. Last year, they were coming off an exhausting road loss to the Baltimore Ravens before winning the thriller in New Orleans. This season, the 49ers will be coming off an extended, 10-day rest in between games, whereas the Saints will be coming off a slightly-short week, having just played a road game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on “Sunday Night Football.”
Week 15 at Dallas Cowboys
Could this be the year the best rivalry of the ’90s gets reignited?
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The 49ers are stacked. The Cowboys have one of the best rosters, from top to bottom, in the entire NFL. Both teams likely will rank among the league’s top offenses, and assuming they perform as expected, their quarterbacks should be in the running for MVP.
Time and time again, Dallas has been the most talented team in the NFC East, only to get in its own way and underperform. Something about this year feels different. The Cowboys have absolutely no excuse to not be a dominant team in 2020, a could very well give the 49ers and Saints a run for their money atop the NFC.
If the Cowboys don’t knock themselves out of the running for the No. 1 seed, the 49ers might have to take matters into their own hands.
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