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Why NFC's No. 1 seed is vital for 49ers in expanded NFL playoff format

Why NFC's No. 1 seed is vital for 49ers in expanded NFL playoff format

With the NFL playoffs' expansion, the number of teams that had previously received first-round byes has been cut in half. Instead of the top two seeds in each conference getting a bye week at the start of the postseason, now it'll only be No. 1.

The 49ers were the No. 1 seed in the NFC last year on their way to an appearance in Super Bowl LIV, and thus still would have received a first-round bye under the new format. Moving forward, they -- along with every other team in the league -- will have a slightly stronger chance of qualifying for the postseason each year, but a significantly reduced likelihood of earning a first-round bye.

Given the extremely strong correlation between first-round byes and playoff success -- and the fact that there will be two additional teams competing -- one could argue that it's even more crucial for San Francisco to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC next season than it was in the last.

NBC Sports' Peter King took a look at the most recent Super Bowl participants and winners in his "Football Morning in America" column Monday, which revealed an undeniable trend.

For the last seven seasons, every participant in the Super Bowl has had a first-round bye.

"The seeds of the last 14 teams to make Super Bowls," King wrote, "starting with Seattle-Denver in SBXLVIII: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1."

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King, however, isn't necessarily buying that a first-round bye is essential to winning the Super Bowl. To get a larger sample size, he compared the seeds of the last seven Super Bowl victors to the seven that preceded them. 

"The seeds of the last seven Super Bowl winners: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2. The seeds of the previous seven Super Bowl winners: 3, 5, 2, 1, 6, 4, 4."

Hmm ...

While King insisted he doesn't expect a No. 1 seed to continue winning the Super Bowl at a rate of five out of every seven years, he didn't attempt any explanation as to why the contrast is so stark. Obviously, there are rule changes from season to season, but nothing that would explain such a difference. The playoff structure wasn't altered over that span, either.

[RELATED: Sportsbooks expect 49ers to draft offensive player at No. 13]

Until proven otherwise, though, one has to assume the status quo will be maintained.

If that's the case, the 49ers will need to repeat as the NFC's No. 1 seed -- in a more crowded playoff field -- if they hope to get back to the Super Bowl next year ... and win.

Akiem Hicks shades Mike Glennon to argue Colin Kaepernick blackballed

Akiem Hicks shades Mike Glennon to argue Colin Kaepernick blackballed

Chicago Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks needed just four words to sum up why he thought former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had been blackballed by the NFL.

"We signed Mike Glennon."

Hicks said as much in a video press conference with reporters Wednesday, referring to Chicago's decision to sign Glennon to a contract worth $18.5 million guaranteed in 2017. Kaepernick, who had kneeled during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality and institutional racism throughout the 2016 season, went unsigned that entire offseason and since then.

Kaepernick's protest has received renewed attention as protestors demonstrate around the world against the same societal issues the QB sought to highlight. George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, died last Monday in Minneapolis police custody after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded that he couldn't breathe. Floyd's death also occurred within months of Louisville police fatally shooting a 26-year-old African American woman named Breonna Taylor, and nearly four months after two white men allegedly followed and shot Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man, as he jogged in his Georgia neighborhood.

Kaepernick argued his protest against police brutality cost him his job as part of a collusion lawsuit he ultimately settled with the NFL last February, and he has been a free agent since opting out of his contract with the 49ers -- after they said they would release him otherwise -- in 2017. Former 49ers teammate Alex Smith said last month it's "absurd" Kaepernick, who led San Francisco to a Super Bowl appearance and an NFC Championship Game berth in back-to-back seasons, has not been employed by an NFL team since then.

“I think he would have gotten a good deal if he had not protested,” Hicks said. “Does he have all the qualifications that we seem to be looking for in NFL quarterbacks? Athletic. He can get the ball down the field. I think that he fits a lot of those categories. Do I know if he would have gotten a huge deal and gone onto be a Hall of Fame quarterback? I don’t know these things. I just know that when he took a knee, he was silenced -- or they attempted to silence him.”

Some of Kaepernick's critics argued he played his way out of a job. Yes, the 49ers went just 1-10 after a healthy Kaepernick regained the starting job from Blaine Gabbert in 2016. But the QB posted a 90.1 passer rating and 16 touchdowns (to four interceptions), all while playing on a team that current general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan couldn't wait to strip for spare parts the following offseason.

Nine 49ers caught at least 10 passes from Kaepernick in 2016, and seven didn't return to San Francisco the following season. Only one of those nine players, depth tight end Garrett Celek, was on the 49ers' roster in 2019. Three haven't played in an NFL game since then, and another (Rod Streater) has only played in three games -- all in 2018 -- during that time.

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Of course, the Bears might have seen enough when Kaepernick completed just one of five passes for 4 yards against Chicago in the middle of a December snowstorm. Kaepernick's 45 snaps in that game could've been plenty, considering Glennon played all of 15 snaps in 2016 before the Bears signed him to a three-year contract worth up to $45 million.

But Glennon didn't last a season as the Bears' starter, losing his job to Mitchell Trubisky -- who the Bears selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft following a trade with the 49ers -- after just four games. The Bears eventually cut Glennon in 2018.

Glennon has played for three teams since then, and Kaepernick hasn't played for one.

“What I will say is this, though: It’s not a Chicago problem, it’s an entire-league problem," Hicks said of Kaepernick remaining unsigned. "There’s 31 other teams.”

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Why 49ers' George Kittle 'loves' playing for head coach Kyle Shanahan

Why 49ers' George Kittle 'loves' playing for head coach Kyle Shanahan

George Kittle has rapidly ascended during his three NFL seasons. Originally a fifth-round draft pick in 2017, Kittle has become one of the league's best tight ends playing in coach Kyle Shanahan's offense.

When asked what it's like to play for the young head coach, Kittle couldn't be more thrilled about having Shanahan at the helm in San Francisco.

"Awesome, Kyle is the man, I love playing for him," Kittle told Will Compton and Taylor Lewan on this week's episode of the "Bussin' With The Boys" podcast. "One of my favorite things about him is he just loves football so much. And when you have a guy that loves football and its not work for him, it makes it pretty easy to play for the guy. He doesn't have to give a pump-up speech, you can just tell how much it means to him."

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Kittle also appreciates that Shanahan doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to communicating with his players.

"He's just straight up with everybody," Kittle said. "We were 4-12 (in 2018), and he still got up in front of the team and didn't bulls--t us or anything like, he's like, 'This is why we're not good, this is what we have to do to be better, we just have to work hard and practice better.' So he's always straight up with us."

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He certainly has evoked a similar reaction from many of his players, as Shanahan's passion helped players gravitate towards the head coach.

Shanahan, Kittle and the rest of the 49ers' roster will come to training camp hungry, looking to avenge a heartbreaking loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.