49ers Weeks 16-18
Week 16: Thursday, Dec. 23 at Titans, 8:20 p.m. ET
Preseason prediction: L
Midseason prediction: L
Everything that was said about how terrible a matchup this game is for San Francisco as noted during the preseason still stands.
Flying across the country on a short week to play in what could be a chilly Nashville setting on Thursday Night Football against a Tennessee Titans team that loves to run the ball will be absolutely no fun. The fact that it’s clear the Titans are far better than the 49ers in 2021 does not alleviate any of that.
In fact, it makes it far worse.
The Titans look like one of the best teams in the NFL through nine weeks and currently sit atop the AFC standings with a 7-2 record, riding a five-game win streak after handling the Rams in SoFi Stadium 28-16 on Sunday Night Football.
And while they are outperforming their expected wins per Football Outsiders (4.6 versus the seven the Titans have), it is hard to argue with just plain winning, especially tough games on the road.
The mild saving grace for the Niners is the Titans are likely to be without star running back Derrick Henry, who broke his foot in Tenneessee’s Halloween win over the Colts, and had surgery the following Tuesday and is not, at least at this time, expected to return this season, although the playoffs haven’t been ruled out.
The Titans truly missed Henry and ran for only 69 yards on 26 carries by a group of rushers that include D’Onta Foreman, Jeremy McNichols, and newly signed (and 36-year-old) Adrian Peterson, winning the game in LA largely on the strength of their defense, which is in the top-10 in the league by DVOA.
With or without Henry, this game smells like a disaster for San Francisco, even more so than it did heading into the season.
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 2 vs. Texans, 4:05 p.m. ET
Preseason prediction: W
Midseason prediction: W
Speaking of teams that are even worse than expected coming into the season: we give you the 2021 Houston Texans.
Granted, this wasn’t going to be a banner year for the Texans, what with the quarterback Deshaun Watson situation remaining unresolved and it looking more and more likely that he’s already played his final game in Houston (if not the NFL).
On top of that, the front office essentially signed replacement-level players across the board and have been rewarded for it with a 1-8 record, including an eight-game losing streak after winning on opening day against the Jaguars.
Houston sports the league’s worst point differential (minus-130) and, per Football Outsiders, currently has the second-best odds at the No.1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft at 26 percent, well behind the winless Detroit Lions who sit at 54.6 percent.
FO also has the Texans as the third-worst team in terms of overall DVOA (minus-31.3 percent), last on offense (minus-28.4 percent), and somewhat remarkably, only 21st on defense (1.6 percent).
The fact of the matter is they haven’t even been competitive in games outside of their lone victory and a three-point loss to the New England Patriots in Week 5.
No matter the situation, this is a game the 49ers should and will need to win, if only to avoid the embarrassment of losing to a team like this.
Week 18: Sunday, Jan. 9 at Rams, 4:25 p.m. ET
Preseason prediction: L
Midseason prediction: L
This final regular season contest has gone from a matchup that once looked like it could be the defacto NFC West championship game to one that could actually be a bit of a dud.
The Niners have no first-round draft pick in 2022, so they won’t be thinking about jockeying for a draft position for a pick that will go to the Miami Dolphins.
The Rams, on the other hand, may need this game for either a chance to win the NFC West or for playoff seeding, depending on what happens between them and the Cardinals for the rest of the season.
Either way and barring a massive collapse by either LA or Arizona, those two teams will be butting heads and fighting for the division crown, meaning the Rams will more than likely not be able to rest their starters in Week 18 because it will matter to their playoff lives.
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The only caveat to that would be if the Cardinals have already locked up the division (they’re a game up heading into Week 10) and the Rams cannot change their seeding based on whether they win or lose. In that case, Sean McVay may find it prudent to give quarterback Matthew Stafford, receivers like Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and the rest of his starters a week off.
But this is the longest of long shots, given how tight both the division and the conference are through nine weeks, which means San Francisco might be staring a winless division record straight in the face.
And if the Rams need this game, there’s no reason to think they won’t get it.
A lot could happen between now and then, of that, there’s no doubt. But if things continue to track the way they are, there’s no reason to see the 49ers finishing any better than 7-10 or possibly 8-9, a full five or six wins fewer than predicted this preseason.
In other words: It’s been a disappointing start to the 2021 campaign, but there’s very little reason to believe it’s going to get any better for the Niners this year.