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Can a week one game be a "must-win" game for an NFL team? By definition, of course not. For the 49ers, however, it just may be the case. For the second year in a row, the 49ers face the worst possible scenario for their first two games of the season.
They open up against the Los Angeles Rams in the second game of the traditional Monday Night Football double-header. That game doesn't kick off until 7:20 pm in Santa Clara, and 10:20 on the east coast, which is where the 49ers will travel to face the defending NFC Champions, the Carolina Panthers, in week 2. This means that in any time zone you choose to use, the 49ers players will not make it to their beds until the early hours of Tuesday morning.
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Why is that problematic? The Carolina Panthers begin their season in the opening game on Thursday night, which means they will have ten days rest prior to playing the 49ers. By the time the Niners' players hit the sheets to rest following their opening game, the Panthers' players will have had a head start of three full nights of rest, and one abbreviated night following their game and travel home from Denver. That makes a difference. This is the same scenario that the 49ers faced last year after opening up late on Monday night, and then facing the Pittsburgh Steelers who opened up on the previous Thursday night.
There are tons of stats to back up the fact that teams on normal rest tend to play well against teams on short rest. This is not even that. This is the rare case where a team with abnormally-long extended rest plays a team on short rest. The effect is magnified in those cases.
After the Carolina game, the 49ers travel to Seattle for a week 3 matchup with the Seahawks, which brings its own obvious set of challenges.
Only 12 percent of NFL teams that begin 0-2 go on to make the playoffs. A measly 2.8 % of teams who go 0-3 eventually make the playoffs. What about 1-2 teams? They actually make it a respectable 23.3 % of the time.
While most observers think a playoff berth for the 49ers is unrealistic, don't tell that to the players, and nothing sucks the life out of a fan base more than being eliminated from playoff contention in the first quarter of the season.
The very possibility that the playoffs are mathematically possible is the engine that propels many friends and relatives to weekend gatherings around flat screen TV's to cheer their teams on week after week. Take that possibility away immediately and the months of October through February can become excruciatingly disheartening to a diehard football fan.
With that being said, the 49ers open their season at home against an opponent that they have had a lot of success against recently. The 49ers have won 4 of the last 6 games vs. the Rams, including the final game of the 2015 season. The Rams have question marks of their own, and will start former undrafted free agent quarterback Case Keenum while their quarterback of the future, Jared Goff, watches from the sideline in street clothes. It's a very winnable game for the 49ers.
Last season, optimism flowed through the Niners' fan base after they jumped out of the gates with an impressive 20-3 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. It wasn't until the next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a 43-18 thrashing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, when everything came crashing down. Even after the 47-7 blowout the following week against the Cardinals, having a "1" in the win column was enough to sustain the thought that it was possible for the team to play better.
The 49ers need to put that "1" in the win column on Monday night against the Rams. With statistically the toughest schedule of any team in the NFL this year, they need to put something in the bank to feel good about early, or risk not feeling good at all this season.