Let me be very clear with the point I am going to try and make: this is not meant as a knock on the San Francisco 49ers in any form. This is simply an oberservation.
With the preface out of the way, let’s get right into the meat and potatoes. The 49ers have been to the NFC Championship game in each of the past 3 years, winning once, and dropping 2. Their quest to add some jewelry to their second hand may be coming to a close. The 49ers are built solidly, but the NFL is a league of parity. The teams on the bottom shoot for the teams at the top, and the 49ers have been at, or near the top for a long time by NFL standards.
Before this three year streak began, the 49ers finished with a 6-10 record in 2010. In 2011, they finished 13-3. A jump like this is not uncommon in the NFL. Neither is a fall from grace. While I don’t think that the 49ers fall will be that dramatic, an extra loss or two could make the difference between being a feared playoff team, and looking in from the outside in January.
The NFC East beats up on each other every season, never letting one team pull away too far. Going back to 2010, the best finish for the division winner has been 10-6. The NFC West may be headed in that direction, with Seattle and San Francisco seated at the top, already trading blows, and St Louis and Arizona on the rise. This would mean that a team like Detroit could sneak into the playoffs if they were to go on a roll and finish 11-5.
Last season, the 49ers went 4-0 against St. Louis and Arizona, finishing with a 12-4 record. If they were to now split with each of these teams, they could be on the outside looking in. Even if they just drop one of these games, they’re almost guaranteed of a lower seeding, and having to play on Wild Card Weekend. While not impossible to win a Championship from the #5 or #6 seeds, it does become more difficult.
The last piece of evidence I have is the Philadelphia Eagles. They were able to be in the NFC Championship game from 2002-2005. They lost their first 3 tries, but made the Super Bowl in 2005, which they lost. They still stayed competitive for the most part, but weren’t the threat that they once were.
Again, I know that these are different franchises and the same may not happen with the 49ers in the future. The point is that in the NFL you have a short window of opportunity to be great. Once you’re the top dog, every other team is gunning for you.
Again, this is just a historical observation, not an attack against the 49ers. Simply put, the division is getting better, the NFC is tough, and it’s tough to stay on top.