COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers, winners of four in a row and nine of their last 11, enter Week 16 of the regular season in an odd situation. Following the Arizona Cardinals overtime win in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans, there is a strong likelihood that the Seattle Seahawks can clinch a playoff berth for San Francisco prior to the 49ers final regular season game at Candlestick next Monday.
Here is the situation:
By virtue of possessing a better record within the NFC West, San Francisco holds the tiebreaker over Arizona for one of the final two playoff spots. This means that if it goes into Arizona in Week 17 with a one game lead, the result of that game would only impact playoff positioning. The Cardinals will travel to the Pacific Northwest this upcoming weekend to take on a Seahawks team that is still looking to clinch the division and home-field advantage in the postseason. If Seattle comes out on top in this one, a strong likelihood, it will clinch both the division for itself as well as a playoff spot for the 49ers.
With that said, if Seattle somehow loses its first home game since Week 16 of the 2011 season, San Francisco would still have an outside shot at the NFC West and a first-round bye in the playoffs. It also means that the 49ers would have to defeat the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football the following day to clinch a postseason spot and avoid a Week 17 showdown with Arizona in the desert for a chance to make it to the season season.
So who should the 49ers and their fans be rooting for on Sunday?
Seattle has not lost a home game to an NFC West opponent outside of the 49ers since Week 6 of the 2009 season. To put that into perspective, Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals defeated the Jim Mora-led Seahawks in that one. The idea that a 12-2 Seahawks team will lose two in a row at home within the division with a championship on the line is beyond ridiculous. Though some will say that the NFL represents "any given Sunday," that appears to be too much to ask for.
The ideal scenario heading into the playoffs would be for Arizona to knock the Carolina Panthers out of the playoffs. Carolina currently boasts a one-game lead over the Cardinals, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker based on a Week 5 victory. This would give San Francisco an opportunity to avoid Seattle until the NFC Championship game. In addition, Carolina hosts the New Orleans Saints this upcoming weekend. Whoever loses that game would yield the No. 5 overall seed to San Francisco should the 49ers win their final two games. A Carolina loss coupled with two Arizona wins and it gets a bit more tricky. San Francisco could actually earn the No. 6 seed if the Cardinals win out, which would mean a victory over Jim Harbaugh's squad. It would need Carolina to lose this week against New Orleans and then in Week 17 on the road against the Atlanta Falcons.
Now that you are thoroughly confused, back to the original point. Who should the 49ers and their fans be rooting for on Sunday between Arizona and Seattle?
I am going to take an interesting stand on this one.
They should, for the first time since Matt Hasselbeck was lobbing balls up to Darrell Jackson against the Oakland Raiders in the old AFC West, be rooting for their rivals in the Pacific Northwest to win.
Here are a few reasons.
Clinch a Playoff Spot
As simplistic as it might sound, San Francisco's first order of business is going to be to clinch a playoff spot. The earliest possible time that it can do that this week is if Seattle takes care of business against the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon. This would enable the 49ers to go into their Monday Night Football matchup with the Falcons with a understanding that they will be playing in the second season for the third consecutive year.
Some may wonder what exactly that would do for Harbaugh's squad. The answer is a tad more complicated than the original question. Without having to worry about anything besides potential seeding, San Francisco could open up its offense and try a few new things in regular game action. It could also do so against a Falcons defense that has been among the worst in the NFL. There have been many clamoring for offensive coordinator Greg Roman to open up the offense. What better time then in somewhat of a meaningless game against a bad defense in the final game at Candlestick? This could put the rest of the NFC, including Seattle, on notice.
Barring some sort of historic event like Earth reversing on its axis or frogs dropping from the sky, Seattle isn't going to lose its final two home games of the regular season. This means that the best possible outcome of the final two weeks would be for the 49ers to gain the No. 5 overall seed in the NFC. Why not have Seattle wrap it up sooner rather than later so that San Francisco can prepare for a road playoff game?
Speaking of preparing for a road playoff game, there is only one scenario that enables San Francisco to have some sort of understanding of who it will be playing in the first round of the playoffs. A Carolina win coupled with a Cardinals loss would eliminate San Francisco's NFC West foe. If the Philadelphia Eagles then takes out the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys fall to the Washington Redskins, San Francisco would almost assuredly be taking on the winner of the NFC North in the first round.
That opponent could be the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears or Green Bay Packers. Of course, this is all predicated on the Seahawks actually handling business at home against Arizona. Outside of that, San Francisco likely won't know who it will be taking on until after the Sunday Night Football matchup in Week 17.
Have to Beat the Best to Be the Best
This may sound cliche, but truer words have never been spoken. At some point in the postseason, should San Francisco make a return trip, it will have likely have to go into Seattle and beat the Seahawks. As daunting of a task as that may seem, and it is, relying on dumb luck to avoid the Seahawks in January simply isn't the sign of a championship-caliber team. Sure Seattle could lose its final two home games, stranger things have happened. Sure taking on the Saints or Panthers instead of Seattle in the playoffs seems a bit more appealing to the 49ers.
These points really aren't in question here. Everything is aligning for what promises to be an epic playoff battle between the two division rivals. It's now up to the 49ers to take care of business between now and then. If it means getting an upper hand in preparedness by virtue of Seattle capturing what seems to be an inevitable division title, so be it. At any rate, don't tell me football doesn't have a sense of humor. If Seattle wins on Sunday, it will clinch a divisional title for itself while sending the hated 49ers to their third consecutive playoff appearance. Imagine that.
Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called "Football Debate Central" with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.
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