The 49ers should be happy they’re not in the AFC entering 2022, yet the NFC still has some legitimate teams contending for the conference crown.
There’s little arguing the AFC is the better of the two conferences right now, and it’s pretty much an accurate statement to say the AFC West has taken over as the supreme division after the arms race that included a flurry of blockbuster moves, including the Denver Broncos picking up quarterback Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks.
That move alone made the NFC West a much weaker division heading into 2022, which is great news for the San Francisco 49ers, who won’t have to endure the gauntlet it was a season ago when the NFC West sent three teams to the playoffs.
The bulk of the AFC will be in contention for a conference championship, whereas the NFC is notably top-heavy.
Fortunately, the Niners are one of those top-heavy teams. And while there are understandable question marks for head coach Kyle Shanahan’s squad, namely whether or not second-year quarterback Trey Lance can make the leap to an effective starter, it would be silly to rule San Francisco out as contenders.
But the 49ers do have massive challenges facing them in terms of fellow teams in contention for the conference title.
Here are the four biggest ones.
49ers obstacle No. 4: Dallas Cowboys
2021 end result: Lost to 49ers in Wild Card round
Some may argue the Dallas Cowboys’ 12-5 finish a year ago was a fluke, as their level of competition amid the weak NFC East stood no chance comparing to what the Niners endured in the NFC West.
Sure, Dallas might have downgraded since last year’s finish, losing EDGE Randy Gregory and wide receiver Amari Cooper via free agency and a trade, respectively, but Gregory hasn’t exactly been a high-profile sack specialist over his career, and Cooper lost his spot as WR1 to the up-and-coming CeeDee Lamb.
Replacing cap-casualty offensive tackle La’el Collins might be more important than addressing those other two losses.
Still, the Cowboys stand to be good enough in an otherwise weakened NFC, particularly with quarterback Dak Prescott looking to avenge last year’s premature playoff exit.
And with the NFC East not looking overly stronger in 2022, there won’t be much in the way of Dallas getting back into postseason contention again.