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2011 NFL Playoffs: Packers, Saints, 49ers Lead Top-Heavy NFC

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Now that the 49ers have officially clinched a berth in the NFL playoffs (get your playoff gear!), I feel a lot less guilty talking about playoff positioning and potential 49ers opponents. Until yesterday, I didn't mind writing about it, but there were still minor moments of doubt. After the Braves and Red Sox blew their playoff chances in September, anything was possible.

But now, the 49ers are in the playoffs and the remaining four weeks of the NFL schedule will have a big impact on when they play and where they play. The 49ers currently have the second best record in the NFL sitting behind the undefeated Green Bay Packers and one game ahead of the New Orleans Saints.

Although the NFC will provide its usual contingent of six playoff teams, it strikes me as a particularly top-heavy conference this year. The Packers are the clear-cut favorites, with the 49ers and Saints behind them and the Cowboys, Falcons, Giants and Lions another notch down. I know the Cowboys beat the 49ers, but given how the 49ers have developed since that loss, I think they win that game in a postseason rematch.

The Packers remain undefeated after narrowly escaping with a road victory against the New York Giants. The occasionally questionable Packers defense was on hand and Green Bay had to go all the way down to the wire to defeat the Giants 38-35.

The 49ers are playing some great defense, but the Packers offense would be a stiff challenge. The 49ers defensive strength is against the run, but the Packers don't really care all that much about the run. They will run the ball during the game, but I think it sometimes feels more like they do it because they need to at least pretend to keep defenses honest. Of course, seeing as defenses generally cannot consistently stop Aaron Rodgers, I suppose it really doesn't matter what happens with the run game.

Sunday night saw the Saints handle their business against the Detroit Lions, winning 31-17. The Saints benefited from numerous Detroit penalties, but even still, New Orleans remains incredibly tough in the Superdome. That makes it all the more important for the 49ers to earn that first round bye. The 49ers can hang in most games, but beating New Orleans on the road would be a tall order. Beating New Orleans in San Francisco? That is a much different story.

We are entering the final quarter of the 2011 NFL season. The 49ers have a one-game lead on the Saints, but more importantly, they hold a two-game edge in the conference record tie-breaker. Since the 49ers and Saints don't face each other, conference record would be the next tiebreaker (assuming it was just the two of them breaking the tie). The 49ers are 8-1 in conference and the Saints are 6-3. If Saints won out and the 49ers were to lose to the Steelers but win the rest of their games, San Francisco would win the tiebreaker.

On the other hand, I see no reason to think the Packers will lose two of their final four games. Crazy things happen week to week, but they are rolling. They stubbed their toe against the New York Giants, but given that it was on the road, that might have been their toughest remaining game.

With the Cowboys losing to Arizona (gotta love it!), the 49ers, Packers and Saints are looking like the top three seeds in some order. For now, here are the remaining schedules for all three teams:

@ Arizona
vs. Pittsburgh
@ Seattle
@ St. Louis

@ Tennessee
@ Minnesota
vs. Atlanta
vs. Carolina

vs. Oakland
@ Kansas City
vs. Chicago
vs. Detroit