Yes, we really do: The San Francisco 49ers have a not-so-far-fetched way into the postseason.
Many, many games will decide the fate of the Niners by then, and as the New York Times points out in its handy playoff predictor, there are still 2 septillion ways to end the season. (Translation: a lot.) From today’s perspective, San Francisco has about a one in fifth chance of somehow overcoming the worst injury luck in the league and qualifying for the postseason.
Those odds are The Times – which gives the Niners a 22% chance of a wildcard game and a 1% chance of winning the NFC West – and Football Outsiders, which gives it 17.2% for a wildcard slot and . 6% to take over the division.
Both websites say San Francisco’s surprising 23:20 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday was a season saver. It increased the overall 49ers quota by 11%, according to the Times, and was a net profit of 13.1% over Football Outsiders.
At 5-6, every game is a must for San Francisco from now on. The team could possibly afford one more defeat and sneak into the playoffs, depending on how the league rivals in NFC West finish. To this end, San Francisco has one particularly important game left: Week 16 against the Arizona Cardinals.
Before this crucial matchup is next Monday the game against the Buffalo Bills, San Francisco’s toughest remaining non-league opponents. Buffalo is 8-3 and first in the AFC East. Should the Niners beat the Bills, the Times says their chances of reaching the playoffs would increase to 34%; a loss reduces it to 15%.
San Francisco then plays back to back against bad NFC East opponents, the Washington Football Team and the Dallas Cowboys, who are notably in the playoffs. If the Niners are able to beat both of them and they beat the Bills, they have about a 60% chance of making the playoffs in week 16, according to the Times. If they lose to the bills that number will be 28%.
But the Cardinals game is most important. Arizona is 6-5, with two games remaining against the Los Angeles Rams, plus two NFC East opponents (the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles) and the 49ers. If the Niners lose to the Cardinals and the Bills, they’re toast. If they lose to the Bills but beat the Cardinals, they have a 63% chance of making it through the regular season. If the 49ers finally beat the Bills, sweep their NFC east slate and knock out the Cardinals, they’ll go in week 17 with an 88% chance of making the playoffs.
The final game against the Seahawks could end up being pretty important, but it’s not as important as the Cardinals matchup. Seattle is currently steering its own destiny for the division. There’s a not inconsiderable possibility that the Seahawks have already completed their sowing by the last week of the season, which means they might have their starters resting against the Niners. Even if they don’t, they are unlikely to be fighting for the same wildcard slot in San Francisco. The same cannot be said of the cardinals.
Currently, San Francisco is also behind the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, 5-6 each, in the NFC. The Bears have lost five in a row and no longer appear to be serious contenders; The Vikings could potentially cause problems, but if they were to end the season it would be at the expense of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom they will face in week 14. Tampa is 7-5 and can’t afford a loss to any other wildcard team.
If all of these scenarios are hurting your brain, think of it this way: the 49ers win, they are going to make the playoffs. If they lose, they don’t need it against the Cardinals, and they must trip the Vikings and Bears (and maybe Bucs) too.
Possible? For sure. Unlikely? Yes. Given the course of the season, “unlikely” playoff odds after 11 games are a pretty impressive feat.