49ers in thick of playoff race

After their bye week, the 49ers enter Week 9 at 4-3 and are sitting on the outside of the playoff picture if the season ended today. We break down the team's remaining schedule and look at how it can elevate into the postseason.

After a humbling loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 7, the San Francisco 49ers went into their bye week knowing there are issues to fix on both sides of the ball if they want to keep up in an ultra-competitive NFC West division.

Being idle in Week 8 did not exactly help San Francisco’s case in the divisional race as they lost a half game in the standings to the Arizona Cardinals, who beat the Philadelphia Eagles 24-20 on Sunday. The Cardinals also hold the tiebreaker with the 49ers, stemming from the 49ers’ Week 3 loss to Arizona.

In terms of the overall playoff picture, the 49ers are very much in the hunt as well and currently hold the seventh seed in the NFC with their record of 4-3. With the Seattle Seahawks winning on Sunday over the Carolina Panthers, their record also improved to 4-3, and the 49ers will still have to play the Seahawks twice in the second half of the season. And both games could be crucial for wildcard positioning, as the Cardinals remain atop the division at 6-1 and currently hold the conference’s No. 1 playoff seed.

That being said, things could look a lot different for the 49ers in four weeks, as their next four opponents are all below .500. This week, San Francisco will take on the St. Louis Rams, who were blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs last week. Following the matchup with the Rams, the 49ers will play a tough road game in New Orleans, and will also play the New York Giants on the road. The Saints proved once again last weekend that they are a very different team at home with an impressive victory over the 5-3 Green Bay Packers, so that Week 10 matchup will be a very important test for San Francisco. Still, these games are important and the 49ers expect to win.

Following the Giants game, the 49ers return home for four out of their six remaining games, and will take on Washington in Week 12. Washington upset the Dallas Cowboys in overtime last Sunday and could be getting Robert Griffin III back very soon, meaning the 49ers won’t know what to expect from them come Week 12. However, the key matchups for San Francisco are in Weeks 13 and 15 against the Seahawks.

Of course, this rivalry only gets more heated as the season progresses, but the Seahawks have shown some vulnerability as of late, and they’ve even become susceptible to some distractions in the locker room. But depending on what the Seahawks do the rest of the way, the absolute most important game for the 49ers could come in the last week of the season against the Cardinals. There is a slight chance this matchup could be a must-win for San Francisco, depending on how well they do in their other games, and also depending on what the Seahawks do in the second half of the season.

The good news for the 49ers is that they are getting healthier on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. Linebacker Patrick Willis participated in drills on Monday and could return to action after missing the Broncos game with a toe injury, which would be a huge boost for the defense. The same goes for cornerback Chris Culliver, who also missed the Broncos game because of a hamstring injury.

The other positive? The travel schedule eases up significantly. The 49ers are in a stretch where four of five games are on the road. But after the trips to New Orleans and New York, Jim Harbaugh's team will have to get on a plane just once over the schedule's final six weeks, thanks to a road game against the Oakland Raiders Dec. 7. The other road game comes the following week in Seattle.

Four very winnable games are coming up for the 49ers, and if they are able to win those and stay relatively healthy the rest of the way, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be competing for a wildcard spot, with an outside shot at the NFC West divisional title.

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