On Nov. 18, the 49ers’ situation looked grim.
The team had lost consecutive games to the Panthers and Saints after a bye week, had sunk to 6-4 and was on shaky ground in the playoff picture.
As Bill Williamson of ESPN.com reported at the time, one statistical analysis showed the 49ers had just a 35.7 percent chance of making the playoffs as a wild-card team.
Now, after consecutive victories over the Rams, Redskins and Seahawks, the 49ers are 9-4 and in control over their playoff fate.
The Niners fly to Tampa Bay this week for a game against the 4-9 Bucs, then will close out the regular season with a Monday night game against the Falcons (3-10) on Dec. 23 and a Dec. 29 matchup in Arizona vs. the Cardinals (8-5).
With an offense rejuvenated with the return of wideout Michael Crabtree, left guard Mike Iupati back practicing again and head coach Jim Harbaugh discovering a good-luck charm in his old-fashioned black cleats (which apparently turned the tide against Seattle last Sunday), the Niners have things going their way.
The 49ers and Panthers, both 9-4, are now tied for best record among wild-card contenders, a game ahead of the Cardinals and two ahead of the Cowboys and Bears (both 7-6).
The victory over the Seahawks was huge for the 49ers, boosting the team’s confidence and record. But a stumble against the Bucs this Sunday would negate all the momentum gained from the victory over Seattle.
On Wednesday, Harbaugh was asked if this Sunday’s game against the Bucs might be a bit of a trap game, with his team coming off a big win and having to travel across country. Of course, he said that won’t happen, calling Sunday’s game “the biggest game on the schedule.” It’s his typical pronouncement almost every week.
“This is a must-win game and just win. And do whatever it takes to get that,” Harbaugh said at a news conference. “By any means necessary. The first thing is the preparation. You’ve got to put yourself in a position to earn that. And, our guys will be committed and professional about doing that.”
The Niners, of course, will be favored. Yet Tampa Bay is playing its best football. The Bucs have won four of their past five games, and one of the keys to their resurgence has been their ability to take the ball away from opponents.
If the 49ers make mistakes Sunday, the Bucs will take advantage of them – which could prove costly. Over the past five games, the Bucs defense has 13 interceptions. Tampa Bay leads the NFL with 21 picks.
Harbaugh said that for the 49ers to come up with a victory, they’ll have to handle the Tampa defense and what it can throw at opponents.
“We’re going to have to do a great job in protection,” he told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “They have every blitz known to man (and) very good secondary players.”
If the 49ers can do that, and come up with a fourth straight win to move to 10-4, a return to the postseason will be much more likely than 35.7 percent.