Just as the excitement of the NFL draft was fading, The Shield is ready to grab hold of the media cycle again Wednesday when it releases the full schedule for the 2021 NFL season. After all, if you aren't owning every month, do you really matter?
The 2021 NFL season will be the first to contain 17 regular-season games and should see the return of fans to all stadiums in some capacity as long as the COVID numbers continue to trend in the right direction.
After a season spent with an injury report as long as "Infinite Jest," the 49ers plan to return to title contention this season and perhaps embark on the Revenge Tour they had planned for 2020 before it was derailed by the shoddy turf at MetLife Stadium.
Jimmy Garoppolo is expected to be the starter, with Trey Lance being an NFL sponge during his rookie season. But best-laid plans can get wrecked in a millisecond in the NFL, so expect to see Lance do more than hold a clipboard at some point next season.
With the schedule release coming, I took on the herculean task of mapping out what I see as an optimal, but realistic, schedule for the 49ers. Optimal both to the 49ers and their playoff hopes -- and to the fans and viewing public.
After all, it's football, so let's try and enjoy it.
Week 1 Sunday, Sept. 12 -- at Los Angeles Rams (5 p.m.)
Matthew Stafford, Sean McVay and the new-look, NFC West favorite Rams will be all the talk heading into the 2021 season. What better way to showcase the SoFi Stadium (with fans) and Stafford's debut than against the rival 49ers.
Kyle Shanahan has owned the Rams over the last two seasons, but that was with Robert Saleh at his side and with Jared Goff under center for the Rams. The 49ers will ideally be at optimal health and will be catching Stafford and the Rams before they are 100 percent in sync.
It's a game the healthy 49ers can win and probably should. Even if they don't, it's not the end of the world. Although, the "Trey Lance should start" radio takes will be flying if the 49ers start 0-1, even if Jimmy Garoppolo throws for 400 yards in defeat.
Week 2 Sunday, Sept. 19 -- vs. Houston Texans (1 p.m.)
There's no better way to rebound from what is sure to be a slugfest of an opening game than facing the train wreck known as the Houston Texans.
Deshaun Watson's status remains up in the air pending the NFL's investigation of the 22 sexual assault claims against him, so there's a chance Tyrod Taylor or Davis Mills is taking the snaps in the first handful of weeks.
Even if Watson is playing, the Texans have stripped most of the talent around him and are in full rebuild mode.
This should be a walk in the park for a 49ers team with legitimate Super Bowl dreams. If they are coming off a loss to the Rams, it's the perfect get-right game. If not, then 2-0 should be a breeze.
Week 3 Sunday, Sept. 26 -- at Jacksonville Jaguars (10 a.m.)
The 49ers have some East Coast travel on the books this season, so let's check a few off early.
Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer could form a dynamic QB-coach pairing, but it will take time for them to gel and become a true threat. Even Tim Tebow can't work miracles that fast.
A late September trip to Duval should see the 49ers face Lawrence before everything is firing on all cylinders and give them another win against a bottom-feeder to start 2-1 or 3-0.
Week 4 Sunday, Oct. 3 -- at Chicago Bears (1:25 p.m.)
An early October trip to Soldier Field is good news for the 49ers for two reasons: First, it will be brisk but the frigid temperatures and snow will still be a few weeks off. You want to avoid a late November snow bowl where all hell breaks loose, if atl all possible. Second, Week 4 means it is still likely that the brain trust known as Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace still are riding with Andy Dalton and have yet to turn the car keys over to Justin Fields.
Fields will be extremely motivated by his unwarranted NFL draft slide, out to slice and dice any team that passed on him, with the 49ers at the top of that list after San Francisco chose Trey Lance at No. 3 overall instead of Fields and Mac Jones. If Fields plays, the chances of him putting on a "you'll regret passing on me show" are high. Just look at how long he waited to rip Clemson's soul out after losing to the Tigers in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl.
Can the 49ers beat Fields? Of course. But why play with fire if you don't have to.
Week 5 Sunday, Oct. 10 -- vs. Indianapolis Colts (1 p.m.)
The 49ers might play a last-place schedule but they aren't all patsies. San Francisco should be 3-1 at this point and be in good position to face the AFC South favorites.
This is the perfect time and opponent for a measuring stick game. A rejuvenated Carson Wentz and Frank Reich against a resurgent and healthy Jimmy Garoppolo and a 49ers team fresh off a curb-stomping of Dalton and the Bears.
It'll be a must-watch potential Super Bowl preview. (In a world where the Kansas City Chiefs don't make it out of the AFC, of course. Is that this world? Who is to say?)
Week 6 Thursday, Oct. 14 -- vs. Arizona Cardinals (5:25 p.m.)
Get your popcorn ready for "Thursday Night Football" as a Cardinals team out to avenge last year's late-season loss to C.J. Beathard arrives at Levi's Stadium with color rush jerseys in tow.
Getting the short week out of the way early is ideal for the 49ers. It coming against Kyler Murray is less advantageous, but this a game I'm thrilled to watch.
How much progress have Murray and Kliff Kingsbury made? Are the Cardinals ready to take the next step? Can DeMeco Ryans find a way to slow down Murray as Saleh did?
Murray and the 49ers are destined to battle for the next decade and this installment will go a long way to sorting out the loaded NFC West.
Week 7 Sunday, Oct. 24 -- at Philadelphia Eagles (10 a.m.)
Nick Sirianni said he was going to have a smart football team. That's a great plan. What's next?
Jalen Hurts has the skill set to give the 49ers some issues, and we know DeVonta Smith can churn and burn. I love the idea of the former Alabama teammates trying to do it themselves against one of the NFC favorites. The 49ers get to face mobile for multiple weeks in a row, giving them a true gauge of the holes in their defense.
The Eagles could be frisky, so there's more intrigue here than you might think but the 49ers should leave the City of Brotherly Love with a W.
Week 8 Sunday, Oct. 31 -- vs. Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m.)
When the 49ers made the trade up to No. 3, there was a brief thought that the 49ers could go full chaos mode and draft tight end Kyle Pitts. OK, only George Kittle and I had that idea.
Regardless, the 49ers get their first look at Pitts, a versatile, shape-shifting offensive weapon, on Halloween in Santa Clara. Pitts, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley will give the 49ers' secondary their biggest test of the season through two months.
Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned pivot-point game? If things are going well to this point, the 49ers should pull away and win a Halloween shootout. But if the 49ers are scuffling through seven games, a midseason loss to the Falcons could lead to an important change. *gestures at quarterback position*
Week 9 Sunday, Nov. 7 -- at Seattle Seahawks (5 p.m.)
Kicking off the stretch run with a primetime game in Seattle? Yeah, that sounds right.
Russell Wilson made a lot of polite noise about wanting out this offseason, but he still resides in the Pacific Northwest, which means this one should come down to the wire. The 49ers will have checked off trips to Los Angeles and Seattle by early November, and with the bye week looming, the 49ers can empty the tank before taking stock of where they sit in the playoff race.
Week 10 BYE WEEK
The 49ers exit what is always a slugfest with the Seahawks into a much-needed bye week. Getting the bye week at exactly the midway point is ideal.
With half their division games in the rearview mirror, we should have a good idea of how well the real Revenge Tour is going and if Jimmy Garoppolo will finish the season as the starter, is about to turn things over to Trey Lance or already has been stapled to the bench.
Week 11 Monday, Nov. 22 (5 p.m.) -- vs. Green Bay Packers
Off the bye and right back into the spotlight to face the quarterback they called to check on before drafting Lance.
Aaron Rodgers and the NFC North-leading Packers won't be happy that the 49ers and their No. 3 ranked scoring defense got two weeks to prepare for what could be another NFC Championship Game preview. Oh well, thems the breaks, Aaron.
Even if Garoppolo is still the starter and the 49ers rolling, this might be the game where Shanahan really starts to dust off the Lance packages to give everyone a glimpse of what awaits them in 2022.
Week 12 Sunday, Nov. 28 -- at Cincinnati Bengals
The 49ers still have a few road trips to make, so check this one off the list on Thanksgiving weekend.
Joe Burrow no doubt is thankful that the Bengals reunited him with old friend Ja'Marr Chase, but the turnstiles blocking for him haven't gotten much better, which should be a problem against the 49ers' defensive line.
Still, the Bengals should be improved as long as Burrow is healthy and upright. We could have a Thanksgiving shootout between
Lance Garoppolo and Burrow. Buckle up.
Week 13 Sunday, Dec. 5 -- at Tennessee Titans (1 p.m.)
Might as well pair the trip to Cincy with a stopover (COVID depending) in Nashville to kill two road trips with one stone.
Derrick Henry always gets going in late November, but with no Arthur Smith, Jonnu Smith or Corey Davis, the Titans' offense will have a different, less potent look than in previous years.
Getting bludgeoned by Henry in December is no picnic, but it shouldn't be that cold in Nashville.
Week 14 Sunday, Dec. 12 -- vs. Minnesota Vikings (1:25 p.m.)
Kirk Cousins is still getting iced down from his last trip to Levi's Stadium in January of 2020 when the 49ers took he and the Vikings to the woodshed in the NFC Divisional Round.
As the 49ers are hounding Cousins for three hours on a brisk December day by the Bay, Kyle Shanahan can have a moment of peace glancing over at Trey Lance knowing he finally has the right quarterback to lead his offense. And it wasn't Cousins.
Week 15 Sunday, Dec. 19 -- at Arizona Cardinals (1 p.m.)
The stretch run will be filled with the NFC West landmines because that's just how the NFL likes to operate.
The last time the 49ers played at State Farm Stadium they were bunkmates with the Cardinals and handed them a brutal loss that helped seal Arizona's playoff collapse.
No doubt Kyler will be looking to return the favor in a game that should have massive division and playoff implications.
Week 16 Sunday, Dec. 26 -- at Detroit Lions (1 p.m.)
We'll give the 49ers a late-season breather before the finishing gauntlet against the Rams and Seahawks.
Missing Christmas will be tough, but the 49ers own Jared Goff so this is a decent make-up gift.
Just mind your kneecaps around Dan Campbell.
Week 17 Saturday, Jan 1. -- vs. Seattle Seahawks (5 p.m.)
The NFC West could have four teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, so the 49ers will close with primetime games against two of their rivals.
The 49ers have finished the season against the Seahawks in each of the last two seasons, so let's mix it up a touch and have the bitter rivals battle a week earlier this year. The Faithful should be able to shake off that New Year, New Me hangover and amble down to Levi's Stadium by 5 p.m. This one has everything you want.
Week 18 Sunday, Jan. 9 -- vs. Los Angeles Rams (5 p.m.)
Closing the season the same way we rang it in: 49ers vs. Rams on Sunday Night Football.
A lot will have changed in 17 weeks for Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay, so the 49ers will get experience the Rams' fully operational battle station.
Al and Cris on the call for a game that likely will have playoff and potentially division implications. What is there not to like about this? Nothing.