COMMENTARY | On Thursday, April 18, the NFL released the schedules for all 32 teams.
Here are the five toughest matchups the San Francisco 49ers face, in order of difficulty -- it also happens to be in chronological order.
1. Week 2: Sunday night on the road vs. the Seattle Seahawks. This is the 49ers' toughest matchup, not just because the Seahawks dominated the 49ers in December 42-13; not just because the Seahawks made significant acquisitions this offseason, signing wide receiver Percy Harvin, defensive end Cliff Avril and slot cornerback Antoine Winfield; and not just because the 49ers can't hear themselves think amidst CenturyLink Field's deafening crowd noise.
But this game will be like a playoff game for Pete Carroll's boys. If they want to win the NFC West, they had better win this game. This game means everything for the Seahawks, even though the 49ers may try to play down the significance
2. Week 4: Thursday Night on the road vs. the St. Louis Rams. This game could be as tough as or tougher than the game in Seattle, depending on whom the Rams draft, because it's a short week, the 49ers are the road team, and the road team loses Thursday night games more than 60 percent of the time. Also, the Rams had the 49ers' number last season, beating them once and tying another game despite having an inferior roster. In the upcoming draft, the Rams have three of the first 46 picks. In free agency, the Rams signed Jake Long, a very good left tackle. The Rams should be much better next season than they were last season.
3. Week 11: On the road vs. the New Orleans Saints. The Saints play in the second-loudest stadium in the NFL behind the CenturyLink Field in Seattle. And this game will be a playoff-like statement game for the Saints. Actually, it will be a statement season. Saints head coach Sean Payton will be back from his one-year ban, and he'll be on a mission to prove he's still a top head coach and the Saints are still a top franchise in the NFL. His quarterback, Drew Brees, definitely is a top quarterback still.
4. Week 13: At home vs. the St. Louis Rams. This follows a Monday night game against the Washington Redskins in Washington. After that game, the 49ers will jump on a planem and they will not hit the tarmac at SFO airport until 6 a.m. Tuesday morning. Then they'll have half of a week to prepare to play St. Louis.
The Rams, on the other hand, will have a full week to prepare for the 49ers. That's a big advantage, especially considering their head coach, Jeff Fisher, is one of the best coaches in the NFL. No, he hasn't had many playoff appearances in his 18-year career, but he's elite. He may be the best coach in the NFC West. He clearly has an uncanny understanding of the 49ers' offensive philosophy and knows how to play them.
5. Week 14: At home vs. the Seattle Seahawks. The last game of the toughest four-game stretch any team has to face this season. From Week 12 to Week 15, the 49ers play the Saints, the Redskins, the Rams and the Seahawks back-to-back-to-back-to-back. And the Seahawks are the best of the four teams. None of the 49ers' defensive linemen can catch Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. And none of the 49ers' cornerbacks can cover the Seahawks' No.1 receiver, Percy Harvin. And last season, the 49ers could not stop Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
The Seahawks lost their defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, this offseason (he became the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach), but Pete Carroll is a former defensive coordinator and he's been the one running the Seattle defense all along.
I understand I'm leaving out the games against the Green Bay Packers, the Atlanta Falcons, the Indianapolis Colts, the Washington Redskins and the Houston Texans. I believe the 49ers are superior to those teams -- they've beaten the Packers twice in a row, and they beat the Falcons in Atlanta just a few months ago. While the Colts and Redskins are good teams, they're clearly not as complete as the 49ers. When the 49ers play the Texans in Week 5, the 49ers will have 10 days to prepare for that game. They're very tough to beat when they have that long to prepare.
The 49ers's record was 11-4-1 last season. This year, they could be looking at a record of 11-5 if they lose the above mentioned five games.
Grant Cohn covers the 49ers daily. He writes the "Inside the 49ers" blog for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and has written columns and features for CSNBayArea.com. Follow him on Twitter @grantcohn.
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