The 49ers have run through the gauntlet over the last five weeks, and come out the other side.
San Francisco opened a brutal five-game stretch with an overtime loss to the Seahawks, but then proceeded to reel off wins over the Cardinals, Packers and Saints, with a loss to the Ravens sandwiched in between. That three-game stretch against the Packers, Ravens and Saints was the most difficult stretch any team has faced this late in the season in the modern NFL era, and yet the Niners emerged at 11-2 and primed for a deep playoff run.
Now that the 49ers have faced their toughest foes, and the postseason is in their sights, it's fair to wonder which team or teams the 49ers believe are the best they have faced this season.
For wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the answer is easy.
"Definitely either the Saints or Baltimore, for sure," Sanders told "The Dan Patrick Show." "Those two teams are really good, and I hope we'll play both of those two teams again."
The Ravens and likely MVP Lamar Jackson sit at 12-2 after a Thursday night beatdown of the Jets. The 49ers and Ravens dueled in the rain two weeks ago, a game the Ravens eked out on a last-second Justin Tucker field goal. The Saints hung 46 points on the vaunted 49ers defense and would have collected the W had George Kittle not broke off the most important play of San Francisco's season to set up Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But what about the team that handed the 49ers their first loss, the Seahawks? Russell Wilson and Co. momentarily leapfrogged the 49ers for first place in the NFC West in Week 13 but gave the spot right back after laying an egg against the Rams last Sunday.
The race for the NFC West and a first-round bye likely will come down to Week 17 when the 49ers travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks to close out the season. The winner will get a week of rest and ticket to the Divisional Round, while the loser likely will be headed to either Dallas or Philadelphia for a Wild Card Round bout against the Eagles or Cowboys.
There's a good chance the 49ers could see the Saints again in the NFC playoffs. If San Francisco navigates the final three weeks successfully that game would take place in Levi's Stadium and not the raucously loud Superdome. A return trip to New Orleans is something the Niners would love to avoid.
As for a second meeting with Jackson. Well, Miami sounds lovely in February.
Saints, Ravens are two best teams 49ers have faced, Emmanuel Sanders says originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area