It’s hard to say that a season-opening game is a must-win for any team because it’s just one of 16 games, but it sets a tone for a season that oftentimes has a carryover effect. If a team wins its opener, it’s a momentum builder. If a team loses its first game, the pressure to avoid starting 0-2 gets pretty magnified.
The San Francisco 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings’ opening opponent on Monday night, may have to look at Monday’s game as critical, because their schedule isn’t very favorable coming out of the gate. In fact, it’s about as brutal as it gets. After Monday’s game with the Vikings, the 49ers will play three of their next four games on the road – travelling across the country for an early start game (10 a.m. local time) Sept. 20 against Pittsburgh, which will be rested from its opener Thursday night against New England, then on the road Sept. 27 at Arizona and again going across the country to play the Giants in prime time Oct. 11.
It seems clear that San Francisco will be underdogs in all of those games. If they’re a home dog against the Vikings (Minnesota is currently a 2½- to 3-point favorite on most sportsbooks), it’s hard to imagine they would be road favorites against three teams viewed by many as playoff contenders.
What may be even worse for the Niners is that, even when they’re in the friendly confines of Levi’s Stadium, things aren’t going to get any easier. Their next three home games will be against Green Bay (Oct. 4), Baltimore (Oct. 18) and Seattle (Oct. 22).
A case can be made that the first chance San Francisco might have to be an odds-on favorite might not be until early November when they host the Falcons. Given their brutal early schedule, by the time that game comes around, the 49ers could have a lot of losses already in the bank.
The best thing the 49ers may have going for itself them is that they have been very strong in openers and under the national spotlight of prime-time football.
The 49ers have won their last four regular season openers and five of the last six, something that new head coach Jim Tomsula is likely going to remind players of. As long as he’s at it, he may as well point out their dominance on Monday Night Football, as they look to break a recent drought against the Vikings.
The Vikings-49ers may be tied at 22-22-1 in the 45 meeting the two teams have had with one another, but it has been a pairing of streaks in which one team dominated the other. The Vikings have won the last three meetings and five of the last six, including a 24-13 win in their last meeting in September 2012 and a historic comeback win in 2009 when Brett Favre threw a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to Greg Lewis in a 27-24 comeback win that lit a fire under Favre and the Vikings that would last until the NFC Championship Game.
However, prior to the Vikings’ recent dominance, which started in 1999, the 49ers owned the Vikings for more than a decade. From 1988 to 1998, San Francisco won 9 of the 11 games the team played and held a dominance over the Vikings, especially at home, where San Francisco won all six games played at Candlestick Park.
While the Vikings currently hold the edge in the recent portion of the series, playing San Francisco on a Monday has been epically bad for opponents. San Francisco has always been a hot destination for Monday Night Football and prime time games in general. The 49ers have played at least one Monday night game every year since 2007 and they have won each of their last six MNF games and eight of their last nine.
Even more disconcerting is how they’ve won. They’ve not only beaten teams in prime time, they’ve beaten them up. Of their eight wins dating back to 2009, they have won by point totals of 14, 21, 10, 21, 25, 17, 21 and 15 points.
In fact, pretty much any time you see San Francisco in prime time – in good times and bad alike – opponents have to be prepared to bring their best game or they are going to get bounced. In 105 career prime time games, San Francisco has a record of 68-37, including a 40-18 home record. They’re just as impressive on Monday nights, posting a 25-11 record in the Bay Area.
If history tells us anything, it’s that the Niners tend to feed off of home wins on Monday night. In 20 home games following Monday night wins, the 49ers are 25-12, including a sizzling 17-3 mark when they play the next week at home.
There are a lot of questions heading into the 2015 season for the 49ers and their fans. Of their 22 starters from Week 1 of 2014, 10 of them are gone, as is volatile head coach Jim Harbaugh. The Niners have all the looks of a team in transition, but one thing they can hang their hats on is that have consistently been a strong starter and a strong team under the lights – two things the Vikings will have to contend with and overcome on Monday night.