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Six 2021 games that are critical to 49ers' Super Bowl dreams originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
The 2020 season was supposed to be the 49ers' time to run over the rest of the league en route to a Super Bowl return and a confetti shower in Tampa Bay. Instead, the 49ers' Revenge Tour spent most of the season broken down on the side of the road as an unprecedented number of injuries derailed the season just as it was getting out of the starting blocks.
Now healthy and with one of the most complete rosters in the NFL, the 49ers enter the 2021 season with their sights set on reclaiming the NFC West title and setting themselves up for a Super Bowl run.
After finishing last season 6-10, the 49ers own a favorable schedule in 2021. They have the 12th-easiest schedule based on the opponent's record from last season and own the easiest schedule based on the expected win totals of their 2021 opponents, per Sharp Football.
The 49ers have a favorable draw to start the season, opening with games at the Detroit Lions and at the Philadelphia Eagles. Week 3 is when the schedule truly begins.
While the 49ers' schedule is enticing, there still are a number of games that will prove crucial to giving them the best possible road to Super Bowl LVI. To be clear, these aren't must-win games. The 49ers are too talented a team to be circling must-wins in May. That's a task for the Raiders, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and the like.
But winning these six games, or at least a majority of them, will set the 49ers up for a January run that could end at SoFi Stadium in February.
Week 3 vs. Green Bay Packers
After two road games against expected bottom-feeders to open up, the 49ers, assuming Aaron Rodgers still is the quarterback in Green Bay, get their first true test in Week 3.
A primetime matchup against one of the top NFC contenders will be a perfect opportunity for the hopefully healthy 49ers to see if they truly are back. The 49ers hammered Rodgers and the Packers twice in 2019, so reasserting themselves as a dominant NFC force early in the season will be important.
A win also would give the 49ers the head-to-head tiebreaker over Green Bay which could come in handy as the teams jockey for playoff seeding down the stretch.
Week 4 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Another NFC contender led by a disgruntled star quarterback comes to Levi's Stadium in Week 4, with Russell Wilson and the Seahawks hoping to draw first blood in the rivalry's 2021 edition.
Given the competitiveness of the NFC West, it would behoove the 49ers to win their first division game of the season and get an early leg up on the Seahawks, who they will see again in November. There's a good chance the NFC West title will be determined by either a head-to-head tiebreaker or by virtue of division record.
An early loss to Seattle wouldn't be a killer, but it would ramp up the pressure to secure a win a CenturyLink Field in order to nullify the head-to-head tie-breaker later in the season.
Earning a top-four seed will be of the utmost importance as wild-card teams (other than the 2020 Bucs) rarely run the gauntlet to get to the Super Bowl.
Week 7 vs. Indianapolis Colts
The DeForest Buckner revenge game arrives after the 49ers' early Week 6 bye as a potential Super Bowl preview takes place in the Bay.
This game won't have a direct impact on the 49ers' quest for the NFC West title or No. 1 seed, but it does kick off arguably the toughest stretch of their schedule. Following the game vs. the Colts, the 49ers will visit the Chicago Bears before returning home to face the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams.
Each of those four teams had a top-10 defense by DVOA in 2020 and should provide serious resistance in 2021. While a loss to the Colts is survivable, the 49ers will want to open this tough stretch with a win or else things could get hairy by the end. It's the lone stretch where things could get out of hand.
Week 9 vs. Arizona Cardinals
The 49ers return home from a Week 8 trip to Soldier Field to find Kyler Murray and the Cardinals waiting for them and the new-look Los Angeles Rams on deck.
In last year's season-opener, the lone game the 49ers were mostly healthy, Murray gave them fits while leading the Cardinals to a Week 1 win. The 49ers returned the favor with a surprising late-season win behind C.J. Beathard in Arizona that helped spoil the Cardinals' playoff dreams.
While the 49ers know how dangerous Murray is, there is some look-ahead potential here as the Rams, now led by Matthew Stafford, are getting some serious Super Bowl steam. While the matchup with the Rams is vital (we'll get to that in a second), every NFC West game will have massive implications and the 49ers need to pick up the early division wins at Levi's before focusing on stealing some on the road late in the season.
This game will be even more important should the Cardinals win the first matchup in Arizona in Week 5.
Week 10 vs. Los Angeles Rams
Here. We. Go.
While the Seahawks rivalry normally gets top billing, the arrival of Stafford in Southern California should make the Week 10 tilt the biggest game of the season to this point.
Both teams will be looking to make a statement against the other division favorite. The 49ers have owned the Rams over the past two seasons, but that was with Jared Goff under center in LA and Robert Saleh orchestrating San Francisco's defense. Neither Goff, who now will be taking snaps in Detroit, or Saleh, the Jets' new head coach, will be a factor on this November night.
With the 49ers and Rams finishing the season with a game at SoFi Stadium, the winner of this game could hold the upper hand heading into what could be a winner-take-division game in Week 18. While the season finale gets a lot of attention, this one is just as important.
Week 11 at Jacksonville Jaguars
This game sets up as a perfect trap game. One the 49ers can't fall into.
After going through their tough four-game stretch, the 49ers have to travel across the country to face Boy King Trevor Lawrence and Duval's new king Urban Meyer. It's a 10 a.m. PT kick -- the 49ers have five of those which won't make them happy -- and this one smells of let-down central.
The Jags have a long way to go until they are a playoff contender, but Lawrence is supremely talented and should have his feet under him 10 weeks in. With their margin for error atop the NFC West so slim, the 49ers can't afford to go sleep-walking into Jacksonville against Lawrence and Meyer, who will be looking for one of their first big NFL pelts.
An upset loss in Jacksonville could be the difference between a division title and a trip to Green Bay, Tampa Bay or Los Angeles/Seattle during wild-card weekend.