Grant Cohn: Finding five wins on 49ers’ rugged 2016 schedule
The 49ers have a brutal schedule next season. They may not win much.
But if they were to win a few games, here are the five most-winnable ones in ascending order.
5. vs. Dallas Cowboys, Week 4.
Spread: 49ers +3
In favor of the Niners: They will be desperate to win following back-to-back road games (most likely losses) against Carolina and Seattle. And they will play the Cowboys at Levi's Stadium, where last season the Packers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Falcons and Vikings all failed to score more than 20 points. San Francisco had one of the best home defenses in the entire league and that defense is intact. If the Niners score 21 points against Dallas, they could win.
Can the Niners score 21 points against Dallas? Absolutely, but only if Carlos Hyde is healthy. He's their entire offense. And he should be healthy. This game will be early in the season before the inevitable ankle injury or collarbone contusion. It's always something with Hyde.
In favor of the Cowboys: Just as Hyde should be healthy, so should the Cowboys injury-prone stars — Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Sean Lee, three of the best players in the league. Romo has won his past 11 road starts.
4. vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Week 7.
In favor of the Niners: The Bucs are one of the youngest teams in the league — even younger than the 49ers. Like the Niners, the Bucs struggle on the road. Last season they won just three road games despite leaving the Eastern Time Zone just three times and never traveling more than 950 miles away from Tampa.
This season the Bucs will have to fly more than 2,300 miles across country to play the Niners. The farthest west the Bucs traveled in 2015 was to Houston where they scored just nine points and lost. Will Tampa Bay's offense make the trip to Santa Clara, or does this team not know how to prepare for a cross-country game?
In favor of the Bucs: Their defense allowed a league-low 3.4 yards per carry last season, which means they may shut down Hyde, San Francisco's best offensive weapon. And they will be coming off a bye week, so they'll have extra time to prepare to play this game.
3. vs. Los Angeles Rams, Week 1.
Spread: 49ers +2
In favor of the Niners: They will face a rookie quarterback making his first start in the NFL — Jared Goff. The Niners should confuse him, show him things he never has seen.
They also will face one of the most overrated head coaches in the country — Jeff Fisher, who hasn't had a winning season since 2008. The league has passed him by. Even Chip Kelly, a head coach who got fired last season, has surpassed Fisher. Their teams played each other in 2014 and Kelly's team won 34-28.
Kelly should be able to keep Fisher guessing. Fisher won't know how Kelly will use the 49ers personnel — this will be Kelly's first game coaching these players. He'll have the element of surprise.
In favor of the Rams: They won't need the element of surprise to win — they'll need a big performance from their running back, Todd Gurley. Last season, Gurley faced the Niners once and rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown. The Niners couldn't stop him even though they had two of their best run-stuffers, Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey. Both may miss this game with injuries.
2. vs. New Orleans Saints, Week 9.
In favor of the Niners: They face a team that may as well have no defense. Last season the Saints gave up a league-high 29.8 points per game. This offseason they scapegoated defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and replaced him with former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen, who may be even worse. Hard to imagine Allen being better. He's awful. The Niners should score a lot of points.
And the Saints shouldn't. They scored just 18.6 points per game on the road last season. They have a fast offense that relies on the fast, artificial turf in the Superdome. Grass slows down their entire operation.
In favor of the Saints: They still have Drew Brees. And they have a new tight end, Coby Fleener, to replace Jimmy Graham, the Pro Bowler they traded last offseason. Fleener will flourish with Brees, who throws to tight ends as well as any quarterback ever.
1. vs. New York Jets, Week 14.
In favor of the Niners: They face a team that lost its starting running back during free agency and replaced him with Matt Forte, who's 30. A team whose left tackle, Ryan Clady, tore his ACL during OTAs last year and missed the entire 2015 season. A team whose starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, currently is a free agent.
A team hanging together by a thread.
Even if the Jets re-sign Fitzpatrick, the Niners will have a good chance to win. The Jets will be coming off a Monday night game and will have a shortened week to rest and prepare. And they'll have to fly across country for the first time since they got blown out by the Raiders in Oakland last season. This team is vulnerable.
In favor of the Jets: They have Brandon Marshall, a receiver the 49ers have had trouble covering. Last time they faced him, he caught three touchdown passes in one game as a member of the Bears. For the Jets to win, Marshall will have to dominate. Otherwise, the Niners will beat a team than won 10 games last season.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the 'Inside the 49ers' blog for The Press Democrat's website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.