49ers playoff picture: How San Francisco can clinch NFC wild-card spot in Week 18

The 49ers did not make the playoffs in an injury-plagued 2020 season following their 2019 NFC championship campaign. San Francisco is one game away from returning to the tournament by Super Bowl 56.

Going into Week 18 of this season, the 49ers (9-7) are two games up. .500, coming back to go 7-3 after a shaky start at 2-4. However, they have unfinished business to secure a second playoff berth in three years.

Below we break down the 49ers’ lonely road to trying to reach all three of the NFC West playoff teams, joining the Rams and Cardinals:

The 49ers currently occupy the No. 6 seed, ahead of the No. 7 Eagles, who have already secured a wild-card spot. One of the following two things must happen on Sunday for San Francisco to play more in 2022:

The 49ers have a tough road showdown in Week 18 against the Rams (12-4), who will be motivated to beat the Cardinals for the NFC West title.

San Francisco is the natural underdog, but needs to build on its great recent history in the showdown. The 49ers beat the Rams 31-10 in Week 10. Kyle Shanahan’s team is now on a five-game winning streak against Sean McVay’s club.

If the Niners don’t beat the Rams with George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and their other explosive offensive players with rookie quarterback Trey Lance starting again, they will have to support Shanahan’s old team, the Falcons.

The Saints (8-7) are the only team that can displace the 49ers. New Orleans must play in Atlanta to close out the season. The Saints lost at home in Week 10 to the Falcons, 27-25.

If the 49ers lose to the Rams or tie, they need the Saints to lose or tie the Falcons in their rematch.

Why does San Francisco need to be one game ahead of New Orleans? The 49ers lose a two-way tie with the Saints and a three-way tie with the Eagles and Saints because they would have a lower conference record against both teams. Unfortunately, San Francisco’s Week 4 home win over Philadelphia has no effect on their playoff position with New Orleans still in the mix.

Based on who is the favorite in each game, the 49ers have a lot of work to do to avoid another disappointing season without a playoffs under Shanahan.