By Morris Phillips
The NFL’s hottest team is about to hit the road for the playoffs. And while the 49ers might be plenty comfortable at Lambeau Field on Sunday for their meeting with the Packers, and just as comfortable in Charlotte to face the Panthers the following Sunday, the team and their fans wouldn’t mind a final farewell at the ‘Stick on January 19 for the NFC Championship Game.
And what might the odds be that the 49ers could play one more game at their home for the last 43 seasons and become the first No. 5 seed to host a conference championship game?
Probably right around 5 percent. But here’s how it could happen:
The 49ers would have to beat the Packers on Sunday, after the Saints go into Philadelphia and knock off the NFC East champion Eagles on Saturday. Then the Saints would have go into insanely noisy Century Link Field, and beat the top-seeded Seahawks, when they couldn’t pull off the feat on December 2, losing 34-7. The next day the 49ers would have to turn the tables on the Panthers, reversing the result of their November 10 loss to Carolina at the ‘Stick, 10-9.
Yes, four playoff games, four road winners, and at least one extremely unlikely result in a New Orleans upset of the Seahawks. And now you see why the feat has never been accomplished, although the 2010 NFC playoffs in which No. 4 seed Arizona became the lowest-seeded team to host a conference championship came pretty darn close.
The scenario has just as much to do with the Saints as the 49ers, so in taking a closer look let’s start with Drew Brees and the Saints. The Eagles have been installed as an early 2 ½ point favorite over the Saints on Saturday, mostly because New Orleans—3-5 on the road in 2013—has been far less formidable team in away games than they have been at home in the Superdome. But the “over-under” is 55 points, the highest number of any of next weekend’s four games which portends a shootout. And the Saints, Brees and Coach Sean Payton could tip the scales with the experience factor as they have plenty more of that then Nick Foles, Coach Chip Kelly and the youthful Eagles.
If the Saints win there, then they go into Seattle (regardless of whether the 49ers win or not) where they would hope to take advantage of a weakened Seahawks’ secondary as well as a Russell Wilson-led offense that has struggled to make plays down field in recent weeks.
If nothing else, the Saints collectively have a long memory. They visited Seattle in the 2011 wild card round as defending Super Bowl champs and fell 41-36 to the 7-9 Seahawks. If beating a good team three straight times (over three seasons) is extremely difficult than maybe, just maybe, the pressure might be on Seattle.
With the narrow win over the Cardinals on Sunday, the 49ers improved to 17-7 on the road in three seasons under Coach Jim Harbaugh. That’s the best such mark in the NFL over that span, and really illustrates what a difficult opponent the 49ers will be come next week. Also factor in a league-best six-game win streak heading into the playoffs and the relative health of the team after a September and October littered with missing pieces and you can see why the 49ers have been installed as the early favorite over the Packers by 2 ½ points.
Following that the 49ers would get the Panthers and Cam Newton in Charlotte where they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008. The 49ers would enjoy the edge in experience here as well although they would be unlikely to be favored. But the Panthers could be without receiver Steve Smith, and for sure they won’t have the surprise factor they enjoyed when the two teams met the first time in San Francisco.
Sound plausible? Sure it does when you—insert the old football axiom here—just take it one game at a time.