We’ll go through the schedule week-by-week to predict how the San Francisco 49ers will fare this season while being without a number of key defenders in the early going. As it turns out, San Francisco will finish up in pretty good shape for a fourth-straight postseason run.
Week 1 @ Dallas Cowboys: Win (1-0)
Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman usually unveil their new offensive goodies in the season opener, as they did last year when Colin Kaepernick threw for more than 400 yards against the Packers, that included 200 yards to newcomer Anquan Boldin. Dallas’ offense will give the 49ers defense all it can handle, but it’s tough to envision a scenario in which San Francisco can’t hang 35-plus on that Cowboys defense.
Week 2 vs. Chicago Bears: Win (2-0)
It's hard to fathom a loss in the opening of a brand new stadium in front of a national television audience, especially for a team that still considers itself a contender. The Bears have a high-powered passing game featuring perhaps the best duo of receivers in the league in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery giving San Francisco's re-worked secondary a stiff test. The 49ers will have to figure out a way to get pressure on Jay Cutler and force some mistakes with Aldon Smith out. But the Bears had the worst rushing defense in the league in 2013. When San Francisco can run the ball effectively, it doesn't lose.
Week 3 @ Arizona Cardinals: Loss (2-1)
The Cardinals spent the offseason kicking themselves for losing to the 49ers twice last year in competitive games, when winning one likely would have sent them to the playoffs. The Cardinals are a prime regression candidate considering the losses on defense of Darryl Washington (suspension), Darnell Docket (ACL) and Karlos Dansby (free agency), but will manage to play well. With shifty running back Andre Ellington (cousin of Bruce), emerging wideout Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals will make just enough plays to get the division win at home.
Week 4 vs. Philadelphia Eagles: Loss (2-2)
This might be the game where the 49ers miss NaVorro Bowman and Smith the most. The Eagles up-tempo and quick hitting offense is very difficult on opposing linebackers and takes advantage of reactionary play. It’s simply a bad matchup for the 49ers aging defensive front missing two former All-Pros. San Francisco will find ways to score, but offensive savant Chip Kelly will figure out how to get past that defense with the ever-shifty LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles.
Week 5 vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Win (3-2)
Alex Smith’s homecoming to the Bay Area won’t go well for him as he faces a hungry team coming off two-straight losses. Kansas City only has one offensive weapon in Jamaal Charles, who the 49ers will limit enough to avoid falling below .500. No team in the AFC is more primed for a regression season than the Chiefs.
Week 6: @ St. Louis Rams (Monday Night Football): Win (4-2)
St. Louis would have needed a big night from Sam Bradford and the offense, but with Shaun Hill running the show they will have a tough time pushing the ball down field. The Rams defense will make it a low-scoring game, but the 49ers are simply better. It will be a spirited game, but San Francisco will pull this one out.
Week 7: @ Denver Broncos: Loss (4-3)
This is the first game Bowman is eligible to return after starting the season PUP, however it’s unlikely he’ll come back to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos, arguably the NFL’s best team. San Francisco will be traveling on a shortened week. Manning will be too much for the 49ers’ secondary on his home field, with the quiet crowd as he pushes the tempo - which has become an Achilles heal for San Francisco's defense. The 49ers will score, but the Broncos offense will be too much.
Week 9: vs. St. Louis Rams: Win (5-3)
Coming off the bye, the 49ers will feel pretty good about starting the season 5-3 considering they were without Bowman and Smith, and likely Ray McDonald for the majority of the first half of the regular season. San Francisco should take care of the Rams at home, but this could be a trap game as they look ahead to the following week’s game against a serious contender in the NFC…
Week 10: @ New Orleans Saints: Loss (5-4)
The Saints come into the season as arguable the best team in the conference. The defense is unlikely to lead the league in yardage against, as they did in 2013, but will remain in the upper echelon of the NFC. The explosiveness of the offense led by Drew Brees goes without saying. The 49ers, however, will make this one close with their improved batch of offensive weaponry after struggling in New Orleans last year. But this will be a statement game for the Saints.
Week 11: @ New York Giants: Win (6-4)
Is there a more unpredictable team year after year than the New York Giants? They can be world beaters, evident by their two Super Bowl rings since 2007, but the 49ers will need this game after dropping an emotional loss in New Orleans. Smith will be back from his suspension. The Giants defense won’t be very good and San Francisco won’t have a problem scoring. A couple interceptions of Eli Manning will put this one on ice.
Week 12: vs. Washington: Win (7-4)
Will Robert Griffin III be starting at this point in the year? Will it be Kirk Cousins? Washington’s defense allowed 30 points per game last year and will have a hard time making a big enough leap to win games against contenders on the road. But this sets up as a trap game, with another big one coming just four days later on Thanksgiving.
Week 13: vs. Seattle Seahawks: Win (8-4)
The 49ers were a few big plays away from beating the Seahawks in the conference championship game last February and will be dying to get revenge in their rivals first visit to the new digs. It will be an ugly defensive battle on the short week, but shouldn’t lack for drama and emotion. San Francisco will allow Kaepernick to run, as he did in January, and the 49ers defense will make enough plays against Russell Wilson to get a big win over the Seahawks.
Week 14: @ Oakland Raiders: Win (9-4)
The 49ers will go on a nice little four-game run after their loss in New Orleans. The Raiders might be in bad shape at this point of the season thanks to one of the league’s most grueling schedules. This might be a road game only be definition with a lot of red and gold adorning the O.Co Coliseum. But with a long week thanks to the previous game coming on a Thursday, this sets up as a potential trap game sandwiched between two tilts against the Seahawks.
Week 15: @ Seattle Seahawks: Loss (9-5)
If you haven’t heard, the 49ers have a hard timing winning games in Seattle, where they've been outscored 71-16 in their last two regular season games. They will play better in this one than those two shellackings, as they did for the first three quarters of the NFC Championship Game in January. But Seattle will be out for blood after losing the game against the 49ers two weeks earlier. This game will come down to a mistake or two, which puts the odds in Seattle’s favor on their home turf.
Week 16: vs. San Diego Chargers: Win (10-5)
This is shaping up to be a very interesting game. The Chargers are becoming a trendy sleeper pick in the AFC after winning five of their last six games in 2013 to sneak into the playoffs and take down the Bengals in the first round, 27-10. The Chargers are returning a lot of talent on offense and expect their defense to take another step after finishing ninth in scoring last season. Playoff seeding could be on the line for both teams. But the edge goes to the home team, although this one will be close.
Week 17: vs. Arizona Cardinals: Win (11-5)
The Cardinals might be out of it by the final week while the 49ers will need a win to enter the postseason with some momentum, perhaps with a division crown on the line. Or, the Cardinals could be competing for a wild card berth. But San Francisco will be playing some of its best ball of the season in preparation for the playoffs with all their players back.
There you have it. On this day, Sept. 4, 2014, I’m predicting the 49ers finish the regular season 11-5 with losses to the Cardinals, Eagles, Broncos, Saints and Seahawks. What do you think? Let me know on Twitter or shoot me an e-mail.
E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com
Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.