The NFL lifted the veil from the season schedule today, and the early impression is that the 49ers' road to the playoffs is top heavy. Four of the first five games - on paper, at least - look as if they will be very tough wins; four of the final five shouldn't be as difficult.
The most important is the first - the Monday night game against Arizona to open the season. Not only did the Cardinals sweep the 49ers last season - the only NFC West team to do so - Mike Nolan and Co. believe they will be the 49ers' stingiest rival in the years to come. The 49ers spent big bucks this offseason on a new cornerback and safety, and against Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, they immediately will find out if it was money well spent.
From there, the 49ers have a short week to prepare for a trip to St. Louis, the place where many fans believe the team's playoff hopes were lost last season, and they follow that with a road trip to Pittsburgh, their first trip to the Steel City in more than a decade. That's followed by home games against division champion Seattle and Nolan's former team, the Baltimore Ravens.
The 49ers have a bye just before their longest road trip (5,116 miles) to East Rutherford, N.J., where they play the Giants. Look for the Eli Manning vs. Alex Smith story line to receive plenty of hype. After that, there's an intriguing matchup with the New Orleans Saints. Last year, Reggie Bush had his coming-out party against the 49ers, embarrassing them with four highlight-reel touchdowns. It will be interesting to see whether Nolan's revamped defense can keep pace with Bush this season.
If, as promised, the 49ers head to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they likely will do so with a rousing finale. They have a three-game home stretch in December and none of their final seven opponents had a winning record in 2006. They finish on the road in Cleveland, quite possible the league's worst team east of Alameda County.
- Matt Barrows