The 49ers are widely projected to be in the playoff hunt this season, but what are some possible reasons why they miss out?
Just by taking a quick glance around NFL league circles, it sure seems as if analysts and pundits are thinking the San Francisco 49ers bounce back in 2021 after an injury-plagued 6-10 finish a year ago.
It’s easy to be optimistic this time of year. After all, the Niners do boast one of the league’s most talented rosters. And even with his limitations, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo‘s 2019 campaign in which he nearly passed for 4,000 yards was good enough to help San Francisco make it all the way to the Super Bowl.
Even though the 49ers are hoping to make the eventual transition from Garoppolo to their top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, quarterback Trey Lance, the fact Lance enters a situation with a playoff-caliber roster is about the best thing for which he could ask.
Yet 2020 proved just how optimism, projection and prediction can all go astray. It’s one thing to be projected as a playoff team, but it’s another to actually reach the postseason.
And if the Niners don’t, here are some possible reasons why.
49ers play in a gauntlet of a division, the NFC West
Injuries aside (those can derail any team’s postseason chances), one reason for concern is just how tough the NFC West is projected to be this season.
It’s plausible all four teams from arguably the toughest division in football this year make the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks improved their offensive line and still boast two elite weapons in quarterback Russell Wilson and wide receiver D.K. Metcalf.
Until otherwise proven, Seattle remains a contender.
The Los Angeles Rams upgraded at quarterback with Matthew Stafford, while the Arizona Cardinals have given San Francisco fits the last two years, too.
These four teams could all maul each other during the regular season, and it’s possible a 10-7 record results in a last-place finish within the NFC West.
49ers travel more than any other team in the NFL
It’s hard to quantify just how an excess of travel can impact players. But it can’t be seen as a benefit the 49ers are going to travel more miles than any other team in the NFL this season.
A whopping 28,000-plus roundtrip miles, to be exact, per ESPN:
This always incurs the risk of sluggish performances on road games while opening up an increased chance of falling victim to a loss in a home “trap” game.
Related Story: 3 biggest trap games for 49ers in 2021
Regardless, this will be a challenge the Niners will have to overcome.
49ers defense possibly regresses
Over the last four years, fans witnessed both progression and maturation from then-San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who notably had to improve from the lackluster efforts in 2017 and 2018 into the top-level defenses fielded in 2019 and 2020.
2020, amid all those injuries, was Saleh’s masterpiece and ultimately resulted in the 49ers boasting a top-five defense, which in turn landed Saleh a head-coaching job with the New York Jets.
Under first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, it might be a bit more difficult for the Niners to field another top-five unit.
True, San Francisco’s cast of defensive playmakers isn’t lacking like it was during the first two years of Saleh’s tenure. That’ll help Ryans, and so will his own on-field experiences as a long-time NFL linebacker.
Still, there’s a good chance Ryans will experience his own early shortcomings over the course of the season, which could have a negative impact on the team’s overall defensive output in 2021.
And in a division so tough and the NFC being so topheavy anyway, those potentially small pitfalls could end up playing a big role in determining whether or not the 49ers find themselves in the postseason this January.