How the San Francisco 49ers Can Clinch the Final NFC Wild Card Berth in Week 18

The San Francisco 49ers have come a long way since a 3-5 start threatened to end their season prematurely, even with the extra regular-season game added in 2021.

But behind a re-commitment to a multi-faceted running attack, the 49ers found their stride in the second half of the season and enter Week 18 in control of their destiny for the final remaining Wild Card berth in the NFC.

But though the 49ers are in a “win and they’re in” scenario in their game against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, their margin for error is razor-thin. A loss to the Rams could leave the 49ers out of the playoffs altogether. Here is a look at the playoff scenarios that either put the 49ers in the playoffs or leave them wondering how it all went wrong.

The mission is simple for the 49ers: Beat the Rams and clinch the No. 6 seed

The San Francisco 49ers clinch a Wild Card berth with a win Sunday
Elijah Mitchell | Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

At 9-7, the 49ers are currently in the No. 6 position in the NFC and would lock up that slot by defeating the Rams on Sunday, based on their tiebreaker advantage over the Eagles, having beaten Philadelphia back in Week 2. The team still weighing who their starting quarterback will be, as Jimmy Garoppolo has been practicing, but Trey Lance earned high praise from head coach Kyle Shanahan after his performance last Sunday.

The only other team capable of catching the 49ers is the New Orleans Saints, who are currently eighth in the NFC with an 8-8 record. If the 49ers win or tie against the Rams, they eliminate the Saints. Conversely, if the Saints tie or lose, the 49er clinch regardless of their outcome.

It is the most straightforward scenario for the 49ers. Even with a win, they cannot move up to the No. 5 slot, as they currently trail No. 5-seed Arizona by two games. And because of the tiebreaker advantage over Philadelphia, the 49ers cannot finish below the Eagles, leaving them locked into the No. 6 seed.

Where things get tricky for the 49ers is what happens if they lose to the Rams.

A loss to Los Angeles leaves the 49ers at the mercy of the New Orleans Saints

Because the Eagles beat New Orleans in Week 11, they own the tiebreaker with the Saints and cannot finish below them in the standings, hence the Eagles have clinched no worse than the seventh-seed in the NFC.

The 49ers do not have such protection and would lose the conference-record tiebreaker to the Saints if the 49ers lose to the Rams and the Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, leaving both teams at 9-7. In that scenario, the 49ers would be the odd team out, finishing eighth in the seven-team race.

But if both the 49ers and Saints lose, the 49ers still get in and could still be the No. 6 seed if the Eagles also lose to the Cowboys.

The only way the 49ers could fall to the No. 7 slot is if they tie the Rams and the Eagles beat Dallas on Saturday, or the 49ers lose to the Rams, but the Saints also lose (or tie) and the Eagles win.

A rematch with the Rams or a matchup with Tampa Bay the most likely Wild Card scenarios

Because the 49ers are limited to finishing either sixth in the conference, or in one scenario seventh, they are limited to just four potential opponents in the first round, although a rematch against the Rams or a matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the most likely scenarios.

If the 49ers lose to the Rams but somehow survive as the No. 7 seed, they will face the Rams again next week. The Rams are also the draw for the 49ers in the 3-6 game if the 49ers win, along with the Eagles, Seahawks, and Buccaneers, or the 49ers and Seahawks win, along with the Cowboys and Panthers.

The 49ers would play the Buccaneers in the 3-6 game in three scenarios: 49ers lose, Cowboys win, Saints lose, or 49ers win, Cardinals and Panthers win, or 49ers win, Eagles, Seahawks, and Panthers win.

If the 49ers win, along with Dallas, Seattle, and Tampa Bay, the 49ers play Dallas. If the 49ers win and Arizona and Tampa Bay win, the 49ers play the Cardinals in the 3-6 game.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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