Sunday, December 11 vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4:25 PM ET/1:25 PM PT
Tom Brady, like time, marches on.
After a short-lived retirement, followed by rumors that he would only return if the Bucs traded him to San Francisco, Brady ultimately chose to return for his 23rd NFL season and third in Tampa. He’ll be 45 in August.
The team around him has lost some pieces, but retains wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin (although the latter is coming off a major injury), running back Leonard Fournette, and tight end Cameron Brate (although Rob Gronkowski has yet to decide on a return).
The defense remains stout as well, with defensive tackle Vita Vea, linebacker Devin White, EDGE rusher Shaq Barrett, safety Antoine Winfield Jr, and cornerback Carlton Davis among its standouts.
Conversations have been happening around Brady’s sudden dropoff for years now, but at this point, he seems to have quieted the critics. Seeing as there’s no point of comparison at this juncture, that makes a ton of sense.
The Bucs remain a good team, and with Brady at the helm, they’ll be a tough one to beat. And I think this is where the 49ers’ second win streak of 2022 comes to an end. At the hands of lifelong 49ers fan Tom Brady.
Prediction: Bucs win a good matchup
Thursday, December 15 at Seattle Seahawks, 8:15 PM ET/5:15 PM PT
Much like Seattle made for a nice home opener, they also serve as a reasonable opponent for the 49ers to have to worry about on a short week.
Obviously, the Seahawks are a division foe and so the 49ers’ staff is familiar with them and what their head coach Pete Carroll wants to do.
But, as previously noted, the 2022 version of the Seattle Seahawks doesn’t figure to be a good team and so they can provide the Niners with a chance to get right after a tough loss to the Bucs in Week 14.
Prediction: 49ers win, hopefully, this time in an easier fashion
Saturday, December 24 vs Washington Commanders, 4:05 PM ET/1:05 PM PT
The newly dubbed Commanders actually have the makings of a decent football team.
They’ve got weapons on offense, including wideouts Terry McLarin and Curtis Samuel and running back Antonio Gibson, to go along with a formidable defensive line that includes former no.1 overall draft pick EDGE rusher Chase Young, defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, and depth pieces like EDGE rusher Montez Sweat.
But the Commanders, like most of the teams in the NFL, will only go so far as their new quarterback will take them. And that quarterback, Carson Wentz, is one of the league’s more unpredictable.
Wentz has never really recovered his MVP-level play from his injury-shortened 2017 season, one that saw his backup, Nick Foles, win the Eagles their first Super Bowl, and seems to have sent the former North Dakota State Bison into a spiral of erratic play.
The 49ers have seen that he’s still capable of spectacular play (this will be the third year in the row that Wentz has faced the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium, having beaten them as an Eagle on Sunday Night Football against Nick Mullens and the Niners in 2020 and then again on SNF last year as the Colts’ QB in one of the seasons’ uglier games).
But Wentz also tanked the Colts’ playoff hopes last season with particularly poor play down the stretch, leading to Indianapolis not only missing the tournament altogether but to their making the decision to trade him to Washington.
This game comes with another scheduling quirk for the 49ers. They’re coming off a Thursday Night Football game in Week 15 and instead of getting to wait until the Sunday of Week 16, they have to play an afternoon game on Saturday instead.
Still, I don’t think that should matter, as by this point, you have to think the 49ers will have firmly established themselves as contenders in the NFC.
Prediction: 49ers win, although Wentz keeps it closer than you’d hope
Sunday, January 1 at Las Vegas Raiders, 4:05 PM ET/1:05 PM PT
The Raiders got better this offseason.
The Raiders still might be the worst team in the AFC West.
Both things are true, mostly because the division is loaded and Las Vegas may possess a solid, but still division-worst quarterback situation.
It’s easy to forget the Raiders made the playoffs last year, pulling themselves out of a 6-7 hole after a Week 14 loss to Kansas City to win four straight and sneak into the final Wild Card slot. They lost to the eventual AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals, but the resiliency the team showed after the midseason firing of former head coach John Gruden was admirable.
This doesn’t mean they won’t finish last in a highly competitive division, mostly because somebody has to.
In 2021, the Raiders were middle of the road on both offense and defense, although they passed the ball much better than they ran it while stopping the run slightly better than they stopped the pass. It was a weird year in Vegas to be sure.
They attempted to improve on defense by bringing in former Cardinals EDGE rusher Chandler Jones, adding cornerback depth in form of Anthony Averett and Darius Phillips, and inking EDGE rusher Maxx Crosby to a multi-year extension. But the pass-receiving talent in their own division will put this unit to the test.
Offensively, the big move was to trade for former Packer Davante Adams, reuniting him with quarterback Derek Carr, who was his signal-caller in college at Fresno State. After that, the key receiving targets will be slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller, two of the better players at their respective positions in the NFL.
The offense will likely be able to do enough, but the Raiders can’t continue to yield more points than they score (they had a -65 point differential in 2021, the worst of any playoff team) if they want to compete in their loaded division, let alone sniff the playoffs again this season.
This particular game renews an old rivalry, albeit in a new location, as it’s the 49ers’ first trip to Las Vegas to take on the Raiders in their new home. Past matchups, even in the preseason, have gotten heated, resulting in violence that led to the organizations ending their annual preseason game.
Let’s hope for a good game, one that could matter a great deal to both teams, as this late-season matchup could have an impact on the playoffs in both conferences.
Prediction: 49ers win a good one
vs. Arizona Cardinals, Time and Date TBD
It is a little surprising to see the Cardinals as the final game of the season, especially since the last couple of years the NFL has shown who it expects to be in contention for the NFC West division title with this final game.
The Cardinals don’t feel like the team who might be up there with the 49ers, but here we are, looking at a TBD for both the date and time for the 49ers’ Week 18 game against a division foe.
Sure, it could end up with this game sliding into a Sunday afternoon slot if it doesn’t have any major playoff implications. But it could also just as easily be another primetime game for the 49ers if it ends up serving as the de facto NFC West Championship game (although that feels unlikely at this point).
This game’s outcome depends on what each team needs out of it, but no matter what, I fully expect the Cardinals to be a team the 49ers can beat twice. For now, let’s call the split.
Prediction: Cardinals by an inch
It shouldn’t need to be said, but the assumption of these predictions hinges on one very important element: how well Trey Lance acclimates to being the undisputed quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.
He doesn’t have to perfect, because the other elements of the 49ers roster are strong enough to support Lance as he grows into his new role. And for that reason, the expectations are high for the 2022 Niners.