This wasn't where the NFC West was supposed to be in Week 17. All of the pundits of Delphi told us that the St. Louis Rams would be tuning up for a playoff appearance this week. The San Francisco 49ers would be chasing Andrew Luck and the top pick in the draft. And here we are. Script flipped. By about 4 p.m. Eastern, tomorrow, we'll know if the 49ers have a first-round bye in the playoffs and if the Rams have the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Leading into the game, I talked a little about the 49ers surprise season with David Fucillo, the head honcho over at Niners Nation, the managing editor of SB Nation Bay Area and an NFL correspondent over at the big hub. We talked a little about the Niners' path through the playoffs, secrets to success and what they need to do in the off season. Hopefully, there's a few lessons in the there for the Rams.
A quick programming note, we'll be getting head long into the off season next week. First, it's Black Monday, and later in the week we'll have some in-depth articles on free agency, roster reviews, etc.
Let's talk NFC West after the jump.1. The 49ers are facing some real playoff implications with this game. What's at stake? Can we expect starters to be resting?
The 49ers will not be resting their starters on Sunday. If the 49ers beat the Rams or the Saints lose to the Panthers, the 49ers clinch the number two seed in the NFC and a much-needed bye week. The 49ers and Saints will be playing at the same time, so neither will know for sure what is what until games are further along. If the 49ers are able to get a big lead, you could see guys like Frank Gore getting some rest.
It is worth noting that the 49ers will be playing several backup receivers on Sunday, but that is due to injuries and not resting players. The 49ers released Braylon Edwards and Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams are both hurt and likely to get the week off to continue their rehab. Additionally, backup tight end Delanie Walker is out with a broken jaw. Walker is a backup in name only as the 49ers normally run a lot of plays from a base two tight end set.
2. How do the 49ers stack up against other NFC teams in the playoffs? Which team would present the toughest challenge for them in the postseason and why?
The Saints on the road is the toughest challenge in my mind because of how well the Saints are playing in the Superdome. Thus, it is essential for the 49ers to get the two seed. If they land the two seed, Green Bay is the biggest challenge. I think the 49ers can beat the Packers, but it will be tough at Lambeau. The 49ers have a great rush defense and a solid pass defense, but the pass defense is susceptible to big plays on occasion. That concerns me against the Packers.
One of the 49ers three losses came to Dallas, so there is always the concern of facing them again. Again, it comes down to the big plays they can get from their receivers. The 49ers secondary is strong, but when it has struggled, it has been big plays that get them.
3. Since this season was a little bit of a surprise, how will the 49ers approach the offseason? Will they be the team to beat in the NFC West next year?
The off season will be an interesting one in part because the 49ers have a lot of free agents. They signed numerous players to one-year deals and will potentially be paying the proverbial piper this off season. Among others, Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and Alex Smith are all free agents. The 49ers have cap space to get deals done, but given the team's success, it will be interesting to see what kinds of offers are out there from the rest of the league.
Even if the 49ers bring back everybody, they have some holes to fill. The wide receiver position has some question marks and the team will likely look to address those. The offensive line position has a couple question marks and the team will need to figure things out, particularly at the right guard position.
As the 49ers head into 2012, I've got to think they will be the favorites in the NFC West. They could have some decent turnover, but considering what Jim Harbaugh was able to do in spite of the lockout, I have confidence in the team at this point.
Thanks again to Fooch.