It’s amazing how much the hopes of the 49ers have changed after just one week. Prior to the matchup against the Dallas Cowboys this past Sunday, the 49ers were still in the hunt for their division and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. The chances of them accomplishing this were slim, but they still existed. In order to achieve this, the 49ers would have needed a whole lot of help. They would have needed to win both their final games, the St. Louis Rams would have had to have lost their final two, and the Chicago Bears would have had to have lost one more game. Now with the 27-21 loss at the hands of rival Dallas, the 49ers will require some help just to host a Wildcard game.

A home playoff game was handed to the 49ers and all they needed to do was win two more games. For whatever reason, that did not happen. The Dallas Cowboys shocked the 49ers in what looked like one of the legendary matchups of the 80’s or early 90’s. There was no Troy Aikman or Michael Irvin. There was still an Emmitt Smith and newcomers Quincy Carter and Joey Galloway who all dominated the reportedly improved 49ers defense. This was the very same defense that has allowed just three points in their last three home games. This was the very same defense that held Rams’ running back Marshall Faulk (who is arguably the most dangerous back in the game) to just 88 yards and contained both Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt during their last matchup in St. Louis. It’s a sure bet that the 49ers were feeling mighty confident going in against the 4-10 Cowboys.

The Dallas Cowboys had the perfect game plan to beat the 49ers. Goal number one was to stop the run. They accomplished that, holding the 49ers to just 56 total rushing yards and taking running back Garrison Hearst out of the game. This left the 49ers one-dimensional. Jeff Garcia still had a pretty good game completing 21-36 for 229 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. But it wasn’t enough against the NFL’s #1 ranked pass defense.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Cowboys can thank their much-improved offensive line. If there is an MVP of the game, it’s not running back Emmitt Smith, receiver Joey Galloway or even quarterback Quincy Carter. The Cowboys should thank left guard Larry Allen as he made defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield a non-factor leaving the rest of the offensive line free to handle the 49ers improved pass rush. Allen was too much for Stubblefield and repeatedly kept him in one place allowing Emmitt Smith to run toward Stubblefield as well as to the left toward injured defensive end John Engelberger. When the 49ers increased the number of players in the box to try and stop the run, that left Joey Galloway one on one with backup corner Rashad Holman who replaced injured Ahmed Plummer early in the game. Carter to Galloway was the theme in the Cowboys’ passing game.

Playoff picture now

So what does the loss mean to the 49ers now? It means that if the season ended today, they would not be hosting a Wildcard game. Instead they would have to put on their mittens and pull out their parkas and fly out to chilly Green Bay Wisconsin to play a team that is nearly unbeatable at home in cold and wet weather…the Packers. Green Bay holds the tiebreaker with a better conference record. And the 49ers do not have history on their side. The team has not won at Lambeau Field in over 11 years and even that 1990 season win was in the middle of the season, not in December or January. In fact, since that last win at Lambeau the 49ers are just 1-7 against the Packers and have been knocked out of the playoffs three times by this team.

The 49ers’ best bet

This coming Sunday, all 49ers fans will have one other team to cheer on. That would be the New York Giants since they host the Green Bay Packers at the same time the 49ers will be dueling the New Orleans Saints. The 49ers will need a win against the Saints and a Packers loss to the Giants in order to gain the rights to host a Wildcard playoff game. This is the 49ers’ best bet to go further into the playoffs come Wildcard weekend. Playing at home will definitely give the 49ers a better chance.

The 49ers’ other options

What do we know so far? The Philadelphia Eagles have won their division and will be hosting the weakest Wildcard, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The St. Louis Rams have won the NFC West and will likely win homefield advantage this weekend giving them the right to host a divisional playoff game as well as the NFC Championship unless someone knocks them out early. The rest of the NFC playoff picture will be determined by the regular season’s final week.

A Green Bay Packers win against the New York Giants and a Chicago Bears loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars would hand the Pack the NFC Central and a bye week before hosting one of the NFC Divisional Playoff games. This would also mean that the 49ers would travel to yet another cold venue in Chicago’s Soldier Field even if the 49ers beat the Saints during week 17.

If the St. Louis Rams win this week, they will play the weakest Wildcard winner so they may not be able to play the Philadelphia Eagles no matter what happens. Instead, if the Eagles win, they will travel to either Green Bay or Chicago depending on who wins the division. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Eagles, they will travel to St. Louis to play the Rams. The only way the 49ers will travel straight to St. Louis (given a Rams week 17 win), bypassing a second cold playoff game, is to beat the Packers or Bears in the Wildcard game and having the Eagles beat the Buccaneers. This playoff scenario isn’t that far fetched.

No matter how you look at it, the 49ers have a tough road ahead of them thanks to the loss in Dallas. However, no one even figured this team would be over .500 this season. They have definitely surprised a lot of people. The 49ers should not take the Saints lightly with their 7-8 record even after the humiliating 40-10 loss to Washington on Sunday night and their 21-48 loss to the Buccaneers the week before. The 49ers can’t afford to take anyone for granted anymore and every game from here on becomes a must win.

So here’s to a great game against the Saints and good luck to the New York Giants against the Packers.

Division Winners

NFC West Winner:
St. Louis Rams (13-2) – bye week

NFC Central Winner:
Chicago Bears (12-3) or Green Bay Packers (11-4) – bye week

NFC East Winner:
Philadelphia Eagles (10-5)

Playoff Picture

Wildcard Game 1:
Philadelphia Eagles host Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Wildcard Game 2 options:
Green Bay Packers host San Francisco 49ers (Week 17: Green Bay win)
Chicago Bears host San Francisco 49ers (Week 17: Green Bay win, Chicago loss)
San Francisco 49ers host Green Bay Packers (Week 17: 49ers win, Green Bay loss)

Divisional Playoff Game 1 options:
St. Louis Rams hosts winner of Wildcard Game 2
St. Louis Rams host Tampa Bay Buccaneers
St. Louis Rams host Philadelphia Eagles (Week 17: St. Louis win or Chicago loss)

Divisional Playoff Game 2 options:
NFC Central Winner hosts winner of Wildcard Game 2
Chicago Bears hosts Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 17: St. Louis loss and Chicago win)
NFC Central Winner hosts Philadelphia Eagles