How can 49ers clinch a playoff spot in 2021?

Wide receiver Jaelen Strong #11 of the Houston Texans (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Wide receiver Jaelen Strong #11 of the Houston Texans (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The 49ers currently sit as the No. 6 seed in the NFC after Week 16 but should be anything but comfortable with several teams still in contention.

After losing to the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night, the San Francisco 49ers fell to 8-7 but are still in control of their playoff destiny.

The Niners can thank the Miami Dolphins for that after Miami defeated the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football, leaving another NFC contender with a 7-8 record. If the Saints pulled out a victory and then won their remaining games, San Francisco could have been eliminated from postseason contention even if they won out.

The Philadelphia Eagles sit right behind the 49ers with an 8-7 record after their win against the New York Giants last Sunday, but the Niners hold the tiebreaker due to their head-to-head victory over Philly in Week 2.

Three other teams hold a 7-8 record and are on the outside looking in, those being the Saints, Atlanta Falcons, and Minnesota Vikings. San Francisco has playoff-tiebreaking wins over all those three teams, although head-to-head wins only matter in two-way ties.

According to ESPN FPI, the 49ers currently have a 71 percent chance to make the playoffs and have them currently projected to match up against the Los Angeles Rams in Round 1.

But that’s just one scenario. With so many teams in play this deep in the season, there are several scenarios where the Niners can get into the playoffs. There are some easy pathways they can take to get in, but there are also some challenging scenarios that will have fans at the edge of their seats anticipating if their team made it.

49ers easy road to get into NFL playoffs

Recently, San Francisco didn’t make things easy by losing to Tennessee. However, winning the next two games should be the main focus for the 49ers to solidify their playoff spot.

But, the Niners now have the potential to clinch their playoff berth as early as next week.

In this scenario, the Niners would likely have the option to rest their starters for their Week 18 matchup with the Rams, assuming nothing more could be clinched or lost. The Arizona Cardinals are currently holding the No. 5 seed and still stand at 10-5, while San Francisco is right behind them but cannot surpass them because of Arizona sweeping the season series.

The Cardinals have a tough matchup against the Dallas Cowboys this week but finish their season against a declining Seattle Seahawks squad.

By winning just one of these matchups the Cardinals lock themselves into the No. 5 seed.

Clinching after a Week 17 win is absolutely ideal for San Francisco, which tends to be more banged up then most teams week to week. Another week of rest and preparation could be a difference-maker for the 49ers in the first round of the playoffs.

While it isn’t a given that head coach Kyle Shanahan would choose to rest his starters, especially with rookie quarterback Trey Lance looking to be the starter moving forward, it’s safe to say that the Niners would prefer to have that option.

49ers not-so-easy road to NFL playoffs

If San Francisco was to fall to the Houston Texans in Week 17, it would be hard to rebound but not impossible. The 49ers’ worst nightmare is for them to lose against Houston, and for the Saints, Eagles, Falcons and Vikings to come away victorious during the same week.

This would put the Niners at 8-8 with one regular-season game to go, the Eagles would pass them up in the standings, and San Francisco would slide down into the seventh seed. Accompanying them would be the Saints, Eagles, and Vikings all coming in with the same record and would set things up for absolute chaos in Week 18.

Read More: 49ers must let ‘Trey Lance show’ begin in earnest vs. Texans

As noted earlier, a three-way tie in playoff standings means conference record, not head-to-head matchups, becomes the tiebreaker, and that could easily push the 49ers out.

At this point, controlling your own destiny would be out of the picture, the Niners would have to win and get some extra help from other teams. The Saints still pose the biggest threat to San Francisco being eliminated from the playoffs, mainly because they don’t hold a head-to-head victory over them like the Falcons and Vikings.

This would leave the 49ers’ playoff hopes in the air and reliant on other ball clubs, the Niners and their fans would much rather have the less-dramatic scenario of clinching in Week 17.

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