San Francisco faces two of its toughest road contests in the next two weeks, with both games scheduled for prime time on Sunday Night Football. But what kind of future awaits them depending on the results?
We lay out some potential scenarios and follow it up with some interesting historical data.
A win over New England this Sunday provides some breathing room atop the NFC West; and, if you assume victory over Arizona at home in Week 17 (not necessarily a good assumption), it even wraps up the division and the #2 seed for good. That's how big a win would be.
A loss, however, sets San Francisco up for a grueling contest in Seattle that could decide, not just the fate of the West, but the hope of ending 2012 with a Lombardi Trophy.
That's because two straight losses sets San Francisco up playing for their playoff lives in Week 17 against Arizona. Not a good way to end the season when two straight wins could instead give them a shot at the #1 seed.
If the Rams win their next two games, and Seattle loses to us, that sets up a very interesting Week 17 game involving them rather than us, with the #6 seed possibly on the line. How fun would it be to cost Seattle not just a shot at the Divisional crown, but kick them out of the playoffs?
A win in Seattle could do both, and I personally find it very important to eliminate divisional opponents from playoff contention when you have the chance. I'd rather not play Seattle or the Rams more than twice this year.
So what if I also said that these next two weeks are going to be the difference between a playoff bye for San Francisco and a playoff bye for Seattle? Crazy? Not as much as it sounds.
Seattle has a road game against Buffalo and two home games. If they win out, they finish 11 - 5, needing only one Green Bay loss to set the two up for a tie-breaker for the #2 seed. At which point we get to see sports commentators everywhere foaming at the mouth and Goodell hiding for cover over "The Catch that Wasn't."
The next two games, therefore, could be the difference between a San Francisco Super Bowl and a Seattle one. Eek. As fun as it would be to see the NFL in an awkward position, I'd rather just secure the #1 seed ourselves and be done with it.
Playing Bad in December
These road bouts over the next two weeks are a litmus test of this team's character and talent at a crucial point in the season. Two road losses means, at best, four road games in the post-season, ending in New Orleans - but if you can't beat two quality opponents on the road in December, what hope is there to turn that around by January?
Losing two games in a row this late in the season is a bad indication of things to come, especially for a team with high hopes. Which brings us to some data.
In the beginning of every season, you get to hear stats about teams that start 0 - 3, 0 - 4, etc., and their likelihood of making the playoffs. While three losses to start the season is not a death knell -- because there's theoretically nothing preventing a team from winning it's next 12/13 straight -- it tends to reflect deeper problems that are not easily, or immediately, fixed.
Now that the season is drawing to a close, I decided to "reverse" that stat. If teams have a hard time succeeding when starting the season 0 - 3, what happens to teams that finish the season 0 - 3?
More specifically, and more relevant to this year's 49ers, what happens to playoff teams that finish 0 - 3?
Since the start of the 16-game season (1978), only eight teams have done it.
One of them, the 2009 Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints, had the #1 seed locked up by Week 15 and, therefore, their last three games did not matter. Their losses were not really indicative of anything; and we want games that matter, much like the first three games of a season matter. So let us neglect them and instead take a look at the other seven squads.
Combined, their record in the post-season was 5 - 7. Two teams (the 1991 Rams and 1999 Lions) did not win a playoff game, while the other five won exactly one. The 2000 Vikings were the only team to make it further than the Divisional Round, as they had a first round bye - suggesting that their last game of the year might not have mattered much.
Unfortunately, losing three straight for the 49ers would likely mean an elimination from playoff contention. So let's not toy around too much with that idea. Plus, we have to be heavy favorites against the Cardinals at home, even if they are a divisional opponent with a quality defense.
Therefore, let's ask the same question above regarding playoff teams, but let's look at those that went 1 - 2 in their last three weeks: something that, heading into Sunday, is a realistic outcome for San Francisco.
Referencing our original list, that gives us 80 teams. After removing any team that, like the 2009 Saints, had losses in games that did not matter, it gives us a final list of 72 teams.
The spreadsheet details each teams record in the regular season as well as the playoffs. It also tells you the result if anything interesting happened.
Of the 72 teams, 32 were eliminated in their first playoff match. There were 54 total wins accumulated by the 72 teams for a winning percentage of 41.27%. Only four of the 72 made it to the Super Bowl, and only two won it: the '07 Giants and the '97 Broncos.
So finishing the season 1 - 2 is not just bad for the seeding purposes mentioned above, but it also reflects poorly on your Lombardi dreams in general and, statistically, you are less likely than normal to make it all the way. Let's keep the 49ers off that list of 72 teams by winning in New England.