Week 14, Sunday, Dec. 8 at New Orleans
So much of this contest depends on how well Saints quarterback Drew Brees recovers from his thumb surgery. He’s expected to miss at least five more starts after Sunday, but whether he comes back within the six-week time frame remains to be seen.
Furthermore, even if he is back in time to face Atlanta at home in Week 10 after the team’s bye, there’s no guarantee he’ll be back to his old self when the 49ers travel to New Orleans for this Sunday afternoon clash.
Just like they did between Weeks 1 and 2, the 49ers seem likely to spend the week in Youngstown, Ohio between this game and the one in Baltimore, which could help with any travel or time zone-related fatigue.
But so much of this depends on Brees and how effective backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is in keeping the Saints in the NFC South race. If Bridgewater keeps the division within striking distance, then both teams could be in the heat of division battles, which will add to the pressure of this game.
That said, the Saints are traditionally quite good at home. And if Brees is ready to go and the Saints defense continues to improve throughout the season, this one feels like a competitive, but tough loss for San Francisco.
April: Loss, 8-5
September: Loss, 10-3
Week 15, Sunday, Dec. 8 vs. Atlanta
The Atlanta Falcons have had quite an up-and-down start to their 2019 season. They’re just 1-2 through the first three games and have been wildly mediocre on both sides of the ball (PFF has them graded at 70.7 so far on offense, and 65.2 on defense).
The 49ers have already shown themselves capable of coming home from a long road trip and winning the subsequent home game, as they did, albeit in sloppy fashion, in Week 3 against the Steelers.
Even taking that into account, the Falcons still have quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones, two of the better players at their respective positions in the league, so offense isn’t likely to be the problem. The issue is they can’t really stop anyone, having given up 25 points per game so far, and allowing nearly as many yards as they’ve racked up on offense.
It remains to be seen, too, whether the Falcons will have anything to play for this late in the season, whereas the 49ers, at least according to this projection, will be fighting for the NFC West crown and a playoff spot.
April: Win, 9-5
September: Win, 11-3
Week 16, Saturday, Dec. 21 OR Sunday, Dec. 22 vs. Los Angeles Rams
Who knows where the Rams will be coming into this late-season season clash, but you’ve got to believe that this one will decide the division title with just one game left to play after this week.
It’s a home game. It’s likely, given the magnitude of the potential contest, to be a prime-time game. It’s two offensive geniuses matching up with a chance to win the NFC West.
And still I’m not sure if the 49ers have enough to split the season series and take the division. Not quite yet.
I’m bullish on the 49ers chances to be competitive, and a lot could change between now and late December, but it’s the Rams by a nose.
April: Loss, 9-6
September: Loss, 11-4
Week 17, Sunday, Dec. 29 at Seattle
As mentioned, the Seahawks have shown themselves to be vulnerable at home so far this season, and overall they just don’t appear to be as good as they have in years past.
I’m not even sure, as I was in April, that this game will mean anything, save for one thing: the 49ers haven’t won in Seattle since Christmas Eve 2011, a game that featured a quarterback matchup of Alex Smith versus Tarvarius Jackson, and saw the 49ers improve their record to 12-3 on the season.
That, plus maybe the desire to play at home for a Wild Card playoff game or some other seeding situation, will drive the 49ers to once again secure a 12th win on the road in Seattle.
April: Loss, 9-7
September: Win, 12-4
So yes, this is a three-win improvement over my initial projection in April, but the 49ers defense has shown itself to be of a much higher quality than expected so far this season. And that might be enough to win some of those close games, such as against Baltimore or the finale in Seattle, that I was one the fence about before the season began.
Either way, I’ve now created an expected win range. Anything less would be considered a disappoint for this team.