The Raiders' loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday night was the 49ers' gain.
San Francisco (5-8) hasn't officially been eliminated from playoff contention yet, but it's only a matter of time. Barring an extremely unlikely combination of outcomes, the reigning NFC champs will not qualify for the postseason.
Of course, that doesn't mean the 49ers don't have anything left at stake. With the playoffs all but ruled out, arguably the best thing that can happen to San Francisco through the final three weeks of the regular season is an improvement in draft position. The 49ers still have one of the strongest rosters in the league when healthy, and they can add to it with a relatively high first-round pick.
The Raiders' loss to the Chargers didn't change the 49ers' draft position, as they'd still have the No. 12 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft if the season ended today. It did, however, slightly increase the chances that San Francisco will be able to move up in the order.
With the victory, the Chargers improved to 5-9 and dropped to the ninth overall pick in the draft order. They're now one of five teams with five wins on the season, along with the 49ers, New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos -- all of whom are 5-8 heading into the weekend.
Additionally, there are another five NFL teams with four wins to date, including the Dallas Cowboys, who the 49ers face on Sunday.
The Cowboys (4-9) definitely are the easiest opponent remaining on the 49ers' schedule, as they'll face the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively. San Francisco is a slight favorite over Dallas, but with the inconsistency the 49ers have had at quarterback, combined with all their injuries, it's by no means a certainty that they'll prevail. With a loss, San Francisco potentially would be on its way for a top-eight pick by season's end.
Of course, even if the 49ers beat the Cowboys, the Chargers' win still helps. There's a major bottleneck of teams separated by very little, and every win by a team that currently sits ahead of the 49ers in the draft order can only increase their chances of moving up.
And with some of those teams scheduled to face each other in the final weeks, San Francisco has a great chance of doing just that. For instance, the Chargers face the Broncos in LA in Week 16, and the Cowboys will play the Philadelphia Eagles (4-8-1) and Giants in their final two games.
Depending on how everything shakes out, the 49ers could move up several spots in the draft order. And with the top QB prospects expected to go early, that might be the best thing that can happen to them at this point.
Here is the full 2021 NFL Draft order, as things currently stand:
- New York Jets (0-13)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (1-12)
- Cincinnati Bengals (2-10-1)
- Dallas Cowboys (4-9)
- Carolina Panthers (4-9)
- Atlanta Falcons (4-9)
- Miami Dolphins (via Houston Texans (4-9))
- Philadelphia Eagles (4-8-1)
- LA Chargers (5-9)
- NY Giants (5-8)
- Detroit Lions (5-8)
- San Francisco 49ers (5-8)
- Denver Broncos (5-8)
- Minnesota Vikings (6-7)
- Chicago Bears (6-7)
- New England Patriots (6-7)
- Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)
- Baltimore Ravens (8-5)