By Jerrell Richardson
As the 49ers rest at home and watch the rest of the NFL duke it out this weekend, they will have their eyes glued to several match-ups. There is still a lot of football to be played, so their 2 game lead in the NFC West is far from comfortable, but with 4 division games left, San Francisco is in control of their own destiny. So while they will be rooting for the Cardinals and Seahawks to continue their respective losing streaks, they will have a closer eye on the games that will determine where they will be playing as well as whom they will be playing come playoff time.
The 49ers should gain some ground as the Cardinals will have their hands full with the Green Bay Packers, and the Seahawks face a steadily improving Minnesota Vikings team. Seattle at least has a chance, but it will take a maximum team effort for either team to halt their losing skids. As the Rams are also on a bye this week, San Francisco is in a good position to open up the NFC West, and with the playoffs drawing closer, they will need to turn their attention to the best record in the NFC.
A first round bye and home field advantage puts any team on the fast track to the Superbowl, so it weighs heavily in their favor to end the season as one of the top 2 teams record wise. This means that the Falcons, Giants and Bears also need to lose this weekend, and San Francisco also needs the Saints to get their act together.
Atlanta Falcons (7-0)
This week: Vs. Dallas
As the NFL’s only undefeated team, a bulls-eye has been placed on the back of the Falcons. This week they will be up against an inconsistent Dallas Cowboys’ team that poises a huge threat to knocking Atlanta off their pedestal. This season, the Falcons have looked far from invincible with close wins over the Raiders and Panthers, two teams that are not considered playoff teams, so it would not be a monumental upset if the Cowboys actually won.
The Falcons could have an easy second half of the season, depending on how the Saints play. After this weeks game against Dallas, they will face the Saints twice. If New Orleans is the same team that they were in the first half, then Atlanta will easily win both games. But if the Saints can turn around their play, and get up for their division rival then the Falcons schedule will be much harder and 2 or 3 losses is not out of the question. Atlanta will also have to face the New York Giants and Detroit Lions, but outside of that have very winnable games facing Tampa Bay twice, Arizona and Carolina.
New York Giants (6-2)
This week: Vs. Pittsburgh
The Giants will square off against the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a game featuring two of the NFL’s most celebrated franchises. For once the 49ers will be rooting for the franchise that has more Superbowl rings then them, as a Steeler win would eliminate the tie record wise between the Giants and 49ers. As the Giants trounced of the 49ers earlier this year they would win the tie breaker, and San Francisco does not want to go to New York to win a playoff game.
This game is very important to the Giants, as although they proved that they don’t need home field advantage, if they drop behind San Francisco in the win column, with a tough remaining schedule, the Giants would almost have no hope of catching back up. New York will face the Packers, Redskins, Falcons, Eagles, Saints and Ravens (not in that order), but will not have a single game that is an easy win.
Chicago Bears (6-1)
This week: At Tennessee
There is really no way that the Titans are going to beat the Bears. Chicago is playing as well as anybody, and figure to steam roll the Titans. However, Chris Johnson has looked like his old self as if late and will try and lead his team to the upset. This game is big as the Bears play the 49ers very soon on Monday Night, and a loss this week could draw them even before the game. This puts a lot of pressure on Chicago this week, but can in turn put even more pressure on San Francisco when they two meet up if Chicago can enter that game with only one loss.
Chicago has a tough schedule to close out the year so it makes this game that they should win that more important for both them and San Francisco. Other then the 49ers, the Bears will play the Texans, Packers, Vikings (twice) and the Lions so they will be tested, and will be hard pressed to not lose at least 2 of those games. The rest of the NFC West can also help out as the Bears will face the Seahwaks and Cardinals before the end of the year as well.
4 Team Race For Now
The race for the top spot in the NFC is officially on, and there is no telling who will get their first. All the teams will be tested in the second half of the season, and will need a lot of things to go their way, including staying healthy, if they hope to remain on course. Even if the teams in front of them lose, the 49ers can only control what they do each week on the field. They too will face some games that can go either way, and the beauty of football is that any given Sunday any team can win.
So although it seems clear it will be the 49ers, Giants, Bears and Falcons fighting for NFC supremacy, a lot can change in 8 weeks and the best thing for the 49ers is to take care of the opponents in front of them, and let the rest sort its self out, but it doesn’t hurt for the teams in front of them to lose as well.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. His work can be found on Examiner.com.