With the 2009 regular season in the books, it's never too early to take a look at who the 49ers will be lining up against in 2010. The dates and times have yet to be determined, but the 49ers already know which teams they'll be playing next season.
By way of the NFL's rotating schedule, the 49ers will play every team in the NFC South, AFC West and the two teams that finished in the same position as the 49ers (second place) in the NFC North (Packers) and NFC East (Eagles).
Here's a look at what the 49ers 2010 opponents accomplished in the 2009 regular season:
NFC West (Home and Away)
Arizona Cardinals (10-6, Division Champs)
The Cardinals lost both meetings with the 49ers in 2009, but won the division by two games on the strength of their 6-2 road record. While the defending NFC champion's offense remained as one of the most league's better units in the final team rankings (14th overall), the defense sent three starters to the Pro Bowl (DE Darnell Docket, SS Adrian Wilson and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). Larry Fitzgerald is the lone Cardinals representative in the Pro Bowl, but he remains as one of the game's premier talents (97 catches, 1,092 yards with 13 touchdowns). Arizona will be out for revenge in 2010, making this rivalry even more heated.
Seattle Seahawks (5-11, third place)
Like the 49ers, Seattle struggled on the road, but worse, to the tune of a 1-7 record. The Seahawks battled injuries throughout the season to finish with the league's 21st offense and 24th defense. Those rankings figure to improve with head coach Jim Mora returning for his second season in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle had no representatives in this year's Pro Bowl, but the future looks bright as the team has the No. 6 pick in the Draft to add to a solid core of players. The 49ers split the season series with the Seahawks in 2009, but there's no doubt the 49ers would like to get payback for a heartbreaking 20-17 road loss in December.
St. Louis Rams (1-15, fourth place)
The good news for St. Louis is that they have the No. 1 pick in the 2010 Draft. The bad news is that their 2009 season put them in that position. The 49ers swept the Rams in 2009, outscoring them 63-6 in the process. Despite the hardships, running back Steven Jackson was invited to his second Pro Bowl. He finished second in the league with 1,416 yards on 324 carries. The bruising runner remains friends with 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Staley and whenever the two meet on the field it makes for great entertainment. The battles should be even greater in 2010.
Home Opponents (NFC South / AFC West / NFC East second place)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13, fourth place in NFC South)
The 49ers last played Tampa Bay at Candlestick Park in 2007 where they beat the Buccaneers 21-19 in the home finale. But Tampa Bay has made wholesale changes since that meeting. Raheem Morris will enter his second season as head coach, and is looking to build on his team's 2-1 finish down the stretch. That strong finish included a 20-17 overtime win over the New Orleans Saints. Like Seattle, the Buccaneers had no representatives in this year's Pro Bowl, but they can add an impact player with the No. 3 overall pick in the Draft come April.
New Orleans Saints (13-3, first place in NFC South)
When you clinch home field advantage in the playoffs, you've done something right. The Saints did that and also became the NFL's latest team to go from worst to first in their division, a trend that has held true in the last seven seasons. New Orleans finished 2009 with the NFL's top offense, totaling 403.8 yards per game. The Saints also scored 510 points, the most in the league. With that dominant of a season, New Orleans will be sending five players to the Pro Bowl in quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans, tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb, free safety Darren Sharper, and defensive tackle Kevin Williams. But if the Saints make it to Super Bowl XLIV, it could open up five roster spots to NFC alternates. If the players aren't able to play in the Pro Bowl, they'll more than likely all be in the Saints lineup when they visit the Bay Area next year.
Oakland Raiders (5-11, third place in AFC West)
Typically the 49ers and Raiders meet in the preseason, but the two teams will square-off in the regular season for the first time since 2006 when the 49ers were victorious 34-20 at home. No matter the circumstances surrounding the game, it's always a big deal whenever the two Bay Area rivals meet. It should be no different in 2010. Oakland will send two representatives to the Pro Bowl in cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and punter Shane Lechler, who are both mainstays of the game. The Raiders will look to add to their roster as they hold the No. 8 overall pick in the Draft.
Denver Broncos (8-8, second place AFC West)
For the second consecutive year, the Broncos were eliminated from playoff contention on the final week of the season. It was even more painful this time around because the team started 6-0. But despite the disappointment, the Broncos made strides under first-year head coach Josh McDaniels. Another year under his system and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's system should suit Denver well for making a playoff push in 2010. The Broncos will send five players to the Pro Bowl including, cornerback Champ Bailer, tackle Ryan Clady, strong safety Brian Dawkins, outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, and wide receiver Brandon Marshall. With that kind of talent, the Broncos could be a Super Bowl contender next season.
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5, second place NFC East)
All playoff hopes in the Bay Area were eliminated by the Eagles, who beat the 49ers 27-13 at home in Week 15. But the location will change this time around, with the 49ers hosting the Eagles for the second time in the past three seasons. By now, the teams should be pretty familiar with each other. Knowing Philadelphia, the 49ers will have to account for an explosive offense and an opportunistic defense. The Eagles will send the second-most representatives to the Pro Bowl this year behind the eight players chosen from the Minnesota Vikings. The Eagles representatives are kicker David Akers, defensive end Trent Cole, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, tackle Jason Peters, cornerback Asante Samuel, and fullback Leonard Weaver. That list didn't include quarterback Donovan McNabb, but the crafty veteran is always worth checking out in person.
Away Opponents (NFC South / AFC West / NFC North second place)
Atlanta Falcons (9-7, second place NFC South)The 49ers suffered their most lopsided defeat in 2009 at the hands of the Falcons, who marched into Candlestick Park on Oct. 11 and beat the 49ers 45-10. It was by far the most points the 49ers allowed all season and it surely left a bitter taste. The 49ers will have to go south to get revenge though, as this meeting will be in Atlanta. The Falcons had no players make the Pro Bowl, because tight end Tony Gonzalez was edged out by 49ers tight end Vernon Davis and one of last year's Pro Bowlers, running back Michael Turner was banged up most of the year. Gonzalez will probably want to make sure to showcase his future Hall of Fame abilities against one of the NFL's up-and-coming tight ends in the team's 2010 meeting.
Carolina Panthers (8-8, third place NFC South)
The 49ers Faithful spent a lot of time following the Carolina Panthers this season, and with good reason. With the 49ers holding the rights to the Panthers 2010 first-round pick, it was good to know how the Panthers did every week. Carolina finished with the same record as the 49ers, but will actually select later in the Draft because of a stronger strength of schedule. But that slot has yet to be finalized. The 49ers and Tennessee Titans will hold a coin-toss later in the offseason to determine the 16th and 17th slots. Carolina won't select in the first round unless they trade up. But that doesn't mean the Panthers won't be looking to add more impact players to the ones they already have in Pro Bowl running back DeAngelo Williams and defensive end Julius Peppers.
Kansas City Chiefs (4-12, fourth place AFC West)
The Chiefs traded away Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson mid-season to make way for Jamaal Charles and that was probably one of the best decisions made by any team. Charles rushed for 1,120 yards in 10 starts, finishing the season off in style with 259 yards on 25 carries against the Broncos. The 49ers stout rush defense (97.0 yards per game against) should be up for the challenge next season against Charles and company at Arrowhead Stadium, an always tough place to play in the NFL.
San Diego Chargers (13-3, Division Champs AFC West)
There's no team hotter in the NFL right now than the San Diego Chargers, winners of 11 straight. But the 49ers will have to wait to compete with one of the league's best teams until next season. Like Oakland, San Diego is a perennial favorite for the 49ers to play in the preseason because of the team's proximity to one another. It remains to be seen if the 49ers will play the Chargers in the exhibition season, but the two teams are set for the regular season. San Diego has five Pro Bowl representatives in guard Kris Dielman, tight end Antonio Gates, kicker Nate Kaeding, special teamer Kassim Osgood and quarterback Philip Rivers. That also doesn't include wide receiver Vincent Jackson who is the only player to average more than 17 yards per catch in the past two seasons. San Diego's roster of talent will be on full display for 49ers Faithful to see this postseason, and then again in 2010 when they host the 49ers.
Green Bay Packers (11-5, second place NFC North)
The 49ers will make their second consecutive trip to historic Lambeau Field, setting up another showdown between Alex Smith and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But the 49ers aren't too concerned with that, they'd rather get even with Green Bay for the 30-24 loss they were handed in late November. It won't be an easy task, especially in Green Bay where the 49ers haven't won since 1990. The Packers have three Pro Bowl representatives in Rodgers, free safety Nick Collins, and cornerback Charles Woodson, who figures to be in the running for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year honors.