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December football to tell us how the playoff field will fill out

The 49ers head into December in the middle of a wild race for the wildcard. We take a look at the remaining schedules of pertinent teams, and focus on the 49ers final five games. New to Niners Nation? Sign up here and join the discussion!

Rob Carr

Week 13 of the 2013 NFL season started on Thanksgiving, but will see the majority of its action take place on December 1. The NFL playoff chase is heating up, which means coaches are starting to get some questions about the final stretch run. Jim Harbaugh met with the media on Friday, and was asked about December football.

After Monday's win, you said it's going to be tough from here on out. Does football change like, in general terms, in December with the stakes increasing coming into the stretch run here?

"Yes, I think it's only for the tough. There are a lot of guys that can play in April and May when you're going through the OTAs and minicamps. A lot of guys who participate in August and even September, but there's a real toughness and a hardness about playing down the stretch, both mentally and physically. Those guys that have been through 11, 12 games and it has an effect and toll on the physical nature, but also mentally, the pressure, the stakes. It's only for the tough."

You guys obviously play division games the next two weeks. What's different about playing a so-called rival? Is there a different vibe? Just familiarity because you play them twice a year or how, if at all, is it different?

"Well, they're all playoff games right now for us. I can't say that they're, every game is that nature."

There are basically nine teams of note in the playoff race. The 49ers could catch the Seahawks, and the Panthers could catch the Saints, but let's just pretend they claim the top two seeds. Anything is possible, but I'm going to operate under that assumption for now.

Here is a breakdown of the remaining schedules for the nine teams. I left out the Giants. If the Giants end up claiming the NFC East, the Cowboys and Eagles will most likely have slipped out of the wildcard race.

Week 49ers Cardinals Rams Bears Eagles Packers Panthers Cowboys Lions
13 vs. Rams @ Eagles @ 49ers @ Vikings vs. Cardinals Loss @ DET vs. Bucs Won @ DAL Won @ GB
14 vs. Seahawks vs. Rams @ Cardinals vs. Cowboys vs. Lions vs. Falcons @ Saints @ Bears @ Eagles
15 @ Bucs @ Titans vs. Saints @ Browns @ Vikings @ Cowboys vs. Jets vs. Packers vs. Ravens
16 vs. Falcons @ Seahawks vs. Bucs @ Eagles vs. Bears vs. Steelers vs. Saints @ Washington vs. Giants
17 @ Cardinals vs. 49ers @ Seahawks vs. Packers @ Cowboys @ Bears @ Falcons vs. Eagles @ Vikings

Back in April, when the schedule first came out, I predicted the 49ers would be 8-3 at this point in the schedule. I had them losing to the Seahawks, Rams and Saints. I also had them winning out the final five games on the schedule. I think that is still possible, but there are enough questions the rest of the way to keep us all on our toes.

The 49ers host the Rams on Sunday, looking to complete the season sweep. The Rams are playing much better football than when the 49ers easily beat them in St. Louis, but the 49ers are also getting healthier. The 49ers defense has most of its parts in place, and they are looking sharp. And the return of Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham hopefully bodes well for the offense.

That Seahawks game has all sorts of questions to consider. The 49ers were hammered late in Week 2, but again, this is a team that has more offensive parts back in place. Crabtree will likely have a game of action under his belt, and Manningham will have four games under his belt. I think that will prove as important as anything in this game.

That Week 15 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a tough one to figure out. The Bucs were an absolute dumpster fire, starting the season with eight straight losses. Suddenly though, they have turned things around, winning three straight over the Dolphins, Falcons and Lions. I don't really know what to make of this team. It's obviously a winnable game for the 49ers, but they're not heading into the home of an 0-8 team. This is a team will have to study a little more closely to figure out what the heck is going on.

The 49ers host the Falcons in Week 16. While the Bucs are turning things around, the Falcons continue their plummet to the No. 1 pick in the draft. They still have quite a few pieces in place, but it just never came together for them. They have a lot of cap space this coming offseason, but for now, they seem content pulling a sort of Spurs-esque Tim Duncan collapse for one of those top picks.

The 49ers wrap up the season on the road against the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers pulled away in the fourth quarter of their first meeting, winning 32-20. Now, they face a Cardinals team that has won four straight and is starting to right the ship on offense. We knew the defense was talented, but now, Carson Palmer and company are putting it together on offense. They still have a miserable offensive line, but they're working around it.