Los Angeles (AFP) - The San Francisco 49ers kick off a three-game acid test of their Super Bowl credentials on Sunday when they host Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in a clash that could have far-reaching postseason implications.
After years in the doldrums, the 49ers have rediscovered their mojo under head coach Kyle Shanahan this season, winning nine games and losing only once to boast the best record in the National Football Conference.
The question of whether the 49ers are genuine Super Bowl contenders, however, is about to come under severe scrutiny as the Niners kick off a daunting series against three of the strongest teams in the NFL.
After Sunday's date with the revitalised Packers (8-2), the Niners travel to the red-hot Baltimore Ravens (8-2) before heading to Louisiana to take on Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (8-2).
Win all three, and the 49ers would be more or less assured of locking down homefield advantage through the playoffs.
Shanahan however insists the team is not yet contemplating the postseason seedings, looking no further than Sunday's game against the Packers, who are flourishing under the guidance of the 49ers coach's friend and former colleague Matt La Fleur.
"I don't even think about playoff seeding right now," Shanahan said.
"Our goal is to get in the playoffs. There's still a lot of football left. You don't think about seeds, at least I don't, until you can narrow it down to one or two games. I think we're far from that right now."
- Rodgers ready -
For Packers quarterback Rodgers, meanwhile, Sunday is yet another opportunity to remind the Niners of the one that got away.
The 35-year-old northern California native grew up a staunch 49ers fan with dreams of one day playing for the franchise.
Those dreams ended in 2005 when the 49ers, armed with the No.1 draft pick, opted for Alex Smith instead of Rodgers.
Asked at the time how disappointed he was not to have been chosen by his boyhood team, Rodgers replied: "Not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn't draft me."
Rodgers believes the Packers will have to beat San Francisco on the road this season, either this weekend or in the playoffs. The Packers quarterback hope the victory arrives sooner rather than later.
"This is an important one for us," Rodgers said. "We're all aware of where we're at in the seeding going into week 12 and what's in front of us and the opportunities.
"There's still a lot of football to be played and a lot can happen. But you're in denial if you don't think about the implications of a 'W' or an 'L' this week and how that affects stuff down the line. The way we look at it, we're going to have to win there one time.
"It'd be nice to get it done this week."
- Offensive struggles -
The San Francisco-Green Bay primetime collision is not the only blockbuster on the schedule this weekend.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, another boyhood San Francisco fan, was brought up on antipathy towards Dallas.
"I've really not liked the Cowboys since coming out of the womb," Brady joked on Wednesday. "I've got a lot of respect for those guys. They've had a great winning organization, and a lot of great players in their history."
The Patriots head into Sunday's game with questions over the form of six-time Super Bowl winner Brady and the team's suddenly sputtering offense.
Neutered by Baltimore in a 37-20 defeat earlier this month, the Patriots ground out a dour 17-10 win over Philadelphia last week.
Brady made only 26 of 47 passes for 216 yards and no touchdowns. Fourteen first half incompletions were also a career high, although Brady is a long way from hitting the panic button.
"We're just trying to figure out how we can do things consistently, with dependability, and guys are working hard at it," Brady said of the team's offensive struggles.
"Sometimes it comes together early, middle of the season, late in the season. The only thing that matters really is this week and trying to beat a really good football team."