The San Francisco 49ers were aware of their 2021 opponents back in January and the picture became even clearer in May when the NFL released its full 2021 slate of games. Coming off of a middling 2020 campaign, the San Francisco 49ers were set to face off against their regularly scheduled divisional foes twice, the AFC South, the NFC North, the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles, as both teams also finished last in their respective divisions, and then an added 17th interconference game against the AFC North's fourth-placed Cincinnati Bengals.
When calculating the sum of San Francisco's opponents' win totals from last year, the 49ers were considered to have one of the lightest loads heading into 2021 Obviously with the number of variables that come with a typical NFL season, the expectations of opponents change, as well as the challenges of being apart of one of the toughest divisions in football.
Back in May, analytics site Pro Football Focus analyzed the 49ers schedule of games and highlighted the team's toughest stretch of their 2021 schedule, underlining San Francisco's Week 3 through Week 5 matchups (Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals) as the team's most challenge slate of games. So far coming off of their first five weeks of the season, the team sits at 2-3. But was a rough start expected for the team looking to bounce back from their abysmal 2020 campaign?
"If there is a difficult stretch on the easiest schedule in the NFL, it comes early for the 49ers," PFF data analyst Ben Brown wrote in May. "It starts with a game against the Packers — a game that will again hinge on Aaron Rodgers' situation — with a home game against Seattle and a road game against Arizona wrapping things up."
The 49ers lost all three of those matchups, but each loss came by a margin of a touchdown or less. Losing turnover battles, penalties, slow starts, miscues and injuries have been costly in San Francisco's "winnable" losses. But fortunately for San Francisco, there's a fix for (almost) all of the their early woes to open the season.
"When you lose three games in a row, you're always down. It's a tough thing, especially in this league," Shanahan said. "But I've been on teams where I've lost three in a row and you aren't that encouraged because you can't see how you could have won those games. And all three of these games, for different reasons, I feel very strongly that we could have won these three, especially this last one.
"And we had every chance possible to win that game (vs. Arizona) from the beginning of the game all the way to the end of the game. And I felt the same versus Seattle. And I felt the same versus Green Bay. And those are the things to be positive about... It's always going to be hard when you lose games in this league. But you can't let a narrative become your reality. You've got to watch the tape, you've got to work harder, you've got to get better at all these little details that come down to winning and losing in crucial moments."
Now of course with any schedule, the strength (and weaknesses) of teams are ever changing. Last year, Shanahan acknowledged that despite the hype around matchups, he doesn't get too caught up in the order of the schedule given the vast number of unknowns that come with a typical NFL season.
But taking a look at where the 49ers stand entering into their Bye, six of their upcoming 12 matchups are against teams with a sub .500 record, with five of those teams making playoff appearances in 2020 (It's worth noting the 49ers have two upcoming matchups against the Rams).
While encouraging, what's most notable is that San Francisco has four meetings remaining on their schedule against divisional opponents. As the team nears the second half of the season, those matchups will bode crucial for San Francisco, who is currently 0-2 in divisional meetings so far this season.
With the added 17th game and an expanded NFL playoff picture that features seven NFC teams, there's plenty of opportunity for the 49ers to turn their sluggish start to the season around. And optimistically, the 49ers can expect the return of a number of key reinforcements, including George Kittle, Dre Greenlaw, K'Waun Williams and Jeff Wilson Jr. to help boost the unit as they approach the midway point of the season.
While the team's "toughest" stretch may be behind them, the turnaround begins with San Francisco notching their first win at home beginning in Week 7 in primetime against the Indianapolis Colts to kick their remaining 12 contests off on the right foot.
"I think it's going to be good for us to get away a little bit here for just a few days because when we come back we've got 10 in a row, and we just had five in a row and we've got to make sure that we get on our groove here and we got to win some of these tight games," Shanahan said on Tuesday. "And once we could do that, string some together, you've always got a chance. So, I know our team has played and shown that we have the capability to do it. I've just got to make sure we find a way to get some more W's."
Here's a look at what's left for the 49ers and where each opponent currently stands five weeks into the season:
|Week 7||Indianapolis Colts||1-4|
|Week 8||@ Chicago Bears||3-2|
|Week 9||Arizona Cardinals||5-0|
|Week 10||Los Angeles Rams||4-1|
|Week 11||@ Jacksonville Jaguars||0-5|
|Week 12||Minnesota Vikings||2-3|
|Week 13||@ Seattle Seahawks||2-3|
|Week 14||@ Cincinnati Bengals||3-2|
|Week 15||Atlanta Falcons||2-3|
|Week 16||@ Tennessee Titans||3-2|
|Week 17||Houston Texans||1-4|
|Week 18||@ Los Angeles Rams||4-1|