49ers embark on historically difficult three-game stretch

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- To say the San Francisco 49ers' schedule is about to get tougher over the next three weeks would drastically understate what's coming.

The journey the Niners are about to begin -- with games against the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints -- could be the most difficult stretch any team has faced this late in the season in the Super Bowl era.

Through Week 11, those teams have combined for a 24-6 record (all three are 8-2), good for a winning percentage of .800. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, no team has played three straight games against teams with an .800 or better winning percentage this late in the season in the Super Bowl era. If the Ravens and Saints can win their games before facing San Francisco, the Niners would be the first team to face such a stretch.

What's more, only four teams in the Super Bowl era -- the 2007 Detroit Lions, 1999 Cleveland Browns, 1990 Washington Redskins and 1990 Minnesota Vikings -- have played three such games (not consecutively) in their 11th game or later.

None of those teams entered such a gantlet with as much on the line as these 49ers, who are 9-1 and in control of the NFC playoff picture.

"This is why you play football, for this kind of a stretch," Niners right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "We have put ourselves in a pretty solid position here, but it means nothing if we don't get our jobs done over these next few weeks. ... We've got our work cut out for us but we've got the right coaching staff to get us in the game plan, and I believe in this locker room to execute and get the job done."

For much of this season, the 49ers' turnaround has been met with raised eyebrows. Even after manhandling teams like the Rams, Panthers and Browns, the Niners' lack of top-tier victories has left skeptics questioning how good they really are. Suffice it to say, definitive answers are coming soon.

ESPN's Football Power Index rates the 49ers' remaining strength of schedule the most difficult in the NFL, with the next three games providing the stiffest of tests. FPI gives the 49ers a 61% chance to beat the Packers on Sunday but those numbers drop to 34% against the Ravens and 40% against the Saints. The latter two are the lowest-percentage chances for wins remaining on San Francisco's schedule, and a Week 17 trip to Seattle offers the only one lower than the Green Bay game.

It all starts with the Packers traveling to Levi's Stadium as the Niners look to win the one home game of the three. At a combined 17-3, the combined .850 winning percentage is the best in a game between these historic rivals in the Super Bowl era.

At stake? A spot in the driver's seat for the NFC's No. 1 seed. FPI gives the 49ers a 45% chance at the NFC's top spot with a win and just a 10% shot with a loss. Green Bay would have a 44% chance at the 1 seed with a victory and 4% with a defeat.

None of that includes juicy subplots such as the first meeting between quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Garoppolo and the offensive battle of Mike Shanahan coaching-tree luminaries Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur.

"It will be another unique battle," 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. "It'll be a play style similar to what we see week in and week out with Kyle and their offense. So we'll prepare for that. A-Rod is one of the best to ever do it. So it will be a tremendous challenge for us, and we're excited about it."

A win against the Packers would go a long way before heading on another weeklong stay on the other side of the country. Like they did earlier this year -- when they went to Tampa Bay and Cincinnati with a week in Youngstown, Ohio, in between -- the Niners will travel to Baltimore, play the Ravens, travel to Florida for the practice week and then head to New Orleans before returning to the Bay Area.

If the 49ers can pocket a victory against Green Bay, it would mean a split of the two road games would keep them in a prime position for a bye and the top seed, especially if that win came in New Orleans. It would also likely mean losing both games wouldn't be a death knell to their hopes of advancing directly to the divisional round.

"Week in and week out, you always find out stuff about your team," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. "You find out about people. There's lots of football here to play. Each game's going to be huge, so just trying to take it one week at a time and make sure we don't look too far down the road because everyone's in this it seems like right now."

Ten games into the season, the 49ers have found myriad ways to win. They've also shown warts that could come back to haunt them.

Could their problems defending the run cost them against Baltimore's dynamic rushing attack? How will they hold up in raucous road environments in Baltimore and New Orleans?

Of course, those teams also have to play the Niners, who seem to have a knack for winning in new ways, with a different hero emerging every week. No matter how difficult or dramatic the game, the moment has never seemed too much, even for those 49ers in such big games for the first time.

Can they keep it up against the teams that currently stand as the NFC's Nos. 2 and 3 seeds (the Packers and Saints, respectively) and the AFC's No. 2 team (Baltimore)? We're about to find out.

"I love it," 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "Every week is a new opportunity. We've just got to show everybody what we're all about."