Niners to shine in prime time four times

It begins with a prime-time NFC West clash to conclude the first week of the NFL season, features a nationally-televised Monday night showdown against the three-time division champion at midseason, then concludes on the chilly banks of Lake Erie with a finale against a league bottom-dweller that could determine whether the 49ers end a four-year playoff drought.

In between, San Francisco's 2007 regular-season schedule features three two-game road trips - including a stretch of four road games over a five-week span that takes the 49ers into the December stretch run. But that rough segment is followed by a three-game December homestand that the team could find advantageous to its postseason goals.

That lengthy homestand - the first time the 49ers have had three consecutive games at home since 1990 - features two of San Francisco's four nationally-televised games during the 2007 season.

"This is the first time since 2002 that the 49ers have been scheduled to play four nationally-televised games, which indicates the high level of expectation from the league and from our national audience," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Those games come with high expectations and a great amount of exposure which good teams handle well. Playing two Monday Night games against division opponents and Saturday and Sunday night games will be exciting contests for both our fans and players."

In their quest to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the 49ers will play only five games against teams that reached the postseason in 2006 - two of them against reigning NFC West kingpin Seattle, a team the 49ers swept in two meetings last season.

After narrowly missing the postseason last year following a strong 5-4 finish, the 49ers ended up with one of the NFL's softer 2007 schedules, facing teams that had a combined .469 winning percentage in 2006.

As previously announced by the NFL, the 49ers will begin the season Sept. 10 with a late Monday night game televised nationally by ESPN against the Arizona Cardinals at Monster Park in San Francisco.

"There is always excitement on opening day, but when it is at home on Monday Night Football in front of a national-televised audience it is magnified even more," Nolan said. "Every team knows that the key to winning begins in your division. The opportunity to open against NFC West rival Arizona speaks for itself."

The Niners then go on a two-game road swing to St. Louis and Pittsburgh before returning to San Francisco for a key two-game homestand against two reigning division champions - Seattle and Baltimore - that takes the team to its mid-October bye week.

The 49ers' bye comes the following week (Oct. 14). They will face the AFC North teams for the first time in four years, including an Oct. 7 home game against the Ravens that will mark coach Mike Nolan's first matchup against Baltimore since his days coaching with the Ravens.

Nolan was Baltimore's defensive coordinator from 2002-2004, directing one of the NFL's top units each season, before landing his first head-coaching gig with the 49ers. The Ravens were one of the league's elite teams last season, tying Chicago for the NFL's second-best regular-season record at 13-3.

Things turn even more serious for the 49ers when they return from their bye with a stretch of eight consecutive games against NFC foes - five of the first seven of those on the road. That span of games is highlighted by another ESPN Monday night game, this one on the road against Seattle on Nov. 12.

That game begins the second half of San Francisco's schedule, a stretch that includes consecutive home games against Minnesota, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay that takes San Francisco to its season finale against the Browns in Cleveland, a place the 49ers haven't played since 1993. The Browns and 49ers have faced each other just once in the past 13 seasons.

That three-game homestand features two games in which the 49ers again will be spotlighted before a national television audience. They play Cincinnati on Dec. 15 in a Saturday night game that will be televised by the NFL Network, then host Tampa Bay in the featured Sunday night game eight days later.

There is potential for the 49ers to play more nationally-televised games due to the NFL's flexible schedule.

"During the month of November, we'll face a good challenge in sustaining intensity and stamina while playing three out of our four games on the road," Nolan said. "But to follow that road stretch in front of the home fans for three out of four games in December will give us an opportunity to have a great month and close out the season on a strong note."

Once again, the 49ers will be one of the NFL's most-traveled teams. They will travel 28,766 round-trip miles during the regular season, and 33,260 miles including the exhibition season. Last year, San Francisco traveled 25,492 total miles in its 10 regular-season and preseason games - one of the team's lowest totals since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

Here's San Francisco's 2007 schedule, both regular-season and preseason. All times listed are local:

Monday, September 10, ARIZONA, 7:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Sunday, September 16, @ St. Louis, 12 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, September 23, @ Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, September 30, SEATTLE, 1:05 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, October 7, BALTIMORE, 1:15 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, October 14, 49ERS BYE WEEK
Sunday, October 21, @ NY Giants, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, October 28, NEW ORLEANS, 1:15 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, November 4, @ Atlanta, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Monday, November 12, @ Seattle, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)
*Sunday, November 18, ST. LOUIS, 1:15 p.m. (FOX)
*Sunday, November 25, @ Arizona, 2:05 p.m. (FOX)
*Sunday, December 2, @ Carolina, 1 p.m. (FOX)
*Sunday, December 9, MINNESOTA, 1:05 p.m. (FOX)
Saturday, December 15, CINCINNATI, 5:15 p.m. (FOX)
*Sunday, December 23, TAMPA BAY, 5:15 p.m. (NBC)
*Sunday, December 30, @ Cleveland, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Monday, Aug. 13, DENVER, 5 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 16-20, Oakland, TBA
Aug. 23-27, at Bears, TBA
Aug. 31-Sept. 2, at Chargers, TBA

NOTE: The starting times of San Francisco's November and December games marked with an asterisk are subject to change according to the NFL's flexible schedule for Sunday start times over the final eight weeks of the regular season.

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