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NFL Playoff Picture: Who will the San Francisco 49ers play in their first playoff game?

Chris Wilson
Jan 7, 2024 at 12:41 PM

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We made a model to determine the odds for every potential San Francisco 49ers playoff opponent.

As the NFL regular season comes to a close today, the final pieces of the NFL playoff picture are falling into place. The San Francisco 49ers have already secured the top seed in the NFC, but their path to the Super Bowl is far from clear, as one of nine potential teams will travel to Levi's Stadium to face the Niners in the home team's first playoff game.

The Niners plan to rest a number of their starters today, similar to their opponent–the Los Angeles Rams–who have already secured a wild-card spot. On its face, this afternoon's game appears to hold little meaning; However, it will play a pivotal role in shaping the now-blurry NFC playoff picture, as only the No. 1 seed is currently secured.

So, who will the 49ers first playoff opponent be? Well, that's easy–we'll just create a model. And by "create," I mean "borrow" (with permission, h/t below) from existing models, mix them together with my predictive model, toss it in the simulation oven for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, and voilà!

The San Francisco 49ers will play one of the following teams:

Los Angeles Rams

Again? Yes, the most likely team among San Francisco's nine potential opponents is the one the 49ers play today, and the two squads may clash again, regardless of the outcome of the game. With a victory today, the Rams will secure the No. 6 seed; If the Niners prevail, Los Angeles will enter the playoffs as the seventh seed in the NFC. Either way, the Rams will play one of three potential teams: the Dallas Cowboys, the Philadelphia Eagles, or the Detroit Lions, and a victory in the opening round will most likely send the Rams back to the Bay Area the following week. Although this is the most likely scenario among many, it's far from a sure thing at 26 percent.

Philadelphia Eagles

"Been there, done that." But not so fast, because the Eagles may be back again–although this time, it won't be on their home field. If the Eagles lose or the Cowboys win, Philadelphia is relegated to the No. 5 seed, and will face the winner of the NFC South. In this scenario, if Philadelphia is only wild-card team to pull off an upset, their next game will be at Levi's Stadium. Overall, a repeat playoff matchup between the Eagles and the 49ers is the second most-likely outcome for the Niners, at 23 percent.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If all three NFC division winners win on their home turf next week, the NFC South Champion will head to the Bay in the second round. This team is most likely to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who, after winning four of their last five games, will secure the top spot in the NFC South with a victory over the two-win Carolina Panthers today. Overall, the odds of a 49ers-Bucs matchup in the divisional round are 18 percent.

Green Bay Packers

Today's 49ers game has a clear and direct impact on this scenario. While the Green Bay Packers have a slight chance of holding on to a wild-card spot if they lose to the 7-9 Chicago Bears today, the 8-8 Packers are in if they win. Green Bay will be locked into one of the two last playoff spots, along with the 9-win Rams. Since Green Bay holds the tie-breaker, the outcome of today's 49ers-Rams game will determine the order of the two final teams. If Green Bay pulls off an upset next week, The 49ers' first opponent will be either the Rams or the Packers; the odds it's the Packers? 14 percent.

Seattle Seahawks

A Packers loss would open the door for the Seattle Seahawks to squeeze into the playoffs with a win today, along with a loss by the Buccaneers or the New Orleans Saints. If the 7-seed Seahawks win their first game, they'll head to San Francisco. One year after beating the Seahawks three times in the same season, the 49ers will be forced into a repeat scenario, but only at an 8-percent rate.

New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints' playoff road to the Bay is similar to that of the Buccaneers. If the Saints are the unlikely NFC South champs, and all division winners win next week, the 49ers will play New Orleans in the second round. This scenario is a long-shot at 5 percent.

Dallas Cowboys

Like the Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys have a broad range of potential playoff paths. If the Cowboys lose their way back into the top wild-card spot, they'll face the winner of the NFC South. If Dallas can then win on the road, and the two remaining division winners prevail, then yet another 49ers-Cowboys playoff game is on the horizon. But in the end, the odds are unlikely, at just 4 percent.

Atlanta Falcons

It's technically possible for the 7-win Atlanta Falcons to win the NFC South. If they do, and then take a similar path as the one described above, San Francisco would be their second round opponent. It's rather difficult to picture this scenario, which comes in at approximately 1 percent.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings are an extreme long-shot to make the playoffs, which would require a victory, and a lot of help–including losses by both the Packers and Seahawks, as well as one of the NFC South's top-2 teams. If the Vikings are in, and then pull off the upset in the opening round, their next matchup would be the 49ers. Yes, the odds are more than zero, but just barely, at less than 1 percent.

Credit to nflverse for significant portions of code and data.
Thanks to Sebastian Carl, Ben Baldwin, Lee Sharpe, Tan Ho, and John Edwards.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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