Are the 49ers a playoff team in 2019?
It should not take very long to find out.
The 49ers open the season with back-to-back games on the road. Kyle Shanahan’s team did not win a game away from Levi’s Stadium last season. Of course, they won only four games all of last season.
The road games at Tampa Bay and Cincinnati to open the season top the list of pivotal games that will determine whether the 49ers can earn a spot in the NFC playoffs for the first time since Jim Harbaugh’s team lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game after the 2013 regular season.
Here is a look at the most-important games on the 49ers’ schedule this season:
Week 1: at Tampa Bay
The first one is the big one.
The 49ers must prove to themselves that this season is going to be different. The best way to do that is to show up Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that figures to be solidly in the bottom third of teams in the league.
Theoretically, this game should set up well for the 49ers, a team that ranked as the worst in NFL history at generating takeaways, in general, and interceptions, in particular.
Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston is known to make some careless decisions. The new offense under Bruce Arians strives to get the ball down the field. The 49ers’ improved pass rush will have ample opportunities to administer hits on Winston and force him into some bad throws.
If the 49ers do not match their entire season total of two interceptions and come out of this game with a victory, there is reason for their fan base to be disappointed.
Week 2: at Cincinnati
Regardless of what happens in Week 1, the 49ers are presented another prime chance on Sept. 15 to show that this is a different team than the one that failed to win a road game in 2018.
The Bengals, under first-year coach Zac Taylor, are not a good team. If the 49ers have designs on making the playoffs -- or at least remaining in contention deep into the season -- they have to take care of business against teams that are not as good.
This game will be the culmination of a 10-day trip that started with a cross-country flight to Tampa, Florida, and a five-day stopover to practice in Youngstown, Ohio.
If the 49ers lose at Tampa Bay, a victory over the Bengals would give the 49ers a boost before heading home. If the 49ers open 2-0, then they would appear to be well on their way to playoff contention. Conversely, an 0-2 start would signal and uphill climb to break their skid of five consecutive seasons without sniffing the playoffs.
Week 9: at Arizona
There is no reason to take the 49ers seriously until they can actually defeat the Arizona Cardinals.
The 49ers get their first shot at snapping their eight-game head-to-head losing streak to Arizona on Thursday, Oct. 31, in Glendale, Arizona.
The Cardinals, under one-and-done head coach Steve Wilks, won just two games last season. Both came against the 49ers.
Arizona selected quarterback Kyler Murray to run new coach Kliff Kingsbury’s spread offense with the No. 1 overall pick. That enabled the 49ers to choose defensive end Nick Bosa, the player they wanted all along at No. 2.
Week 10: vs. Seattle
The 49ers finally broke through against the Seattle Seahawks last season, snapping their 10-game head-to-head losing streak. Now, they have to do it again on Monday, Nov. 11, in front of a national-television audience at Levi’s Stadium to take a necessary step toward playoff contention.
The Seahawks acquired Jadeveon Clowney from the Houston Texans a week before the start of the regular season. The 49ers must neutralize him to provide Jimmy Garoppolo with time to get the ball out of his hands.
On the other side, the 49ers’ improved pass rush with Dee Ford and Nick Bosa has to get constant pressure on Russell Wilson to prevent him from ripping apart the secondary, like he has done repeatedly in the past.
Week 12: vs. Green Bay
The 49ers face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Nov. 24, at Levi’s Stadium before setting out on the road for back-to-back road games against the Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints.
If the 49ers have playoff hopes at this stage in the season, they could be battling head-to-head against the Packers for a spot. This game could have huge implications for any wild-card tiebreakers.
The 49ers could’ve/should’ve defeated the Packers at Lambeau Field last season before Rodgers pulled out the victory against a beleaguered San Francisco defense. This season, the 49ers must show that they can close the deal.