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Shorter playoff journey at stake in 49ers-Seahawks showdown

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SANTA CLARA — Kind of a big game this Sunday.

If the 49ers win in Seattle, they will get the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, a first-round bye week, home-field advantage and a fantastic chance to make the Super Bowl.

But if the 49ers lose in Seattle, they will get the No. 5 seed, no first-round bye, no home-field advantage and almost no chance to make the Super Bowl. They would have to win three straight on the road just to make the big game, a feat no West Coast team has ever pulled off.

The travel is simply too much to bear.

“I’ve seen people have to win three in a row the hard way, and they rallied together and did it,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan argued.

True. But in the history of the NFL, only four teams have won three straight road playoff games to make the Super Bowl: the 1985 New England Patriots, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2007 New York Giants and the 2010 Green Bay Packers. All four of those teams are east of the Mississippi River, where cities and franchises are bunched together. Three of those four teams — the Steelers, Giants and Packers — went on to win the Super Bowl.

No team west of the Mississippi River ever has won three straight road playoff games. Teams west of the Mississippi have farther to travel because they’re spread out.

The Packers, conveniently located in the midwest, traveled just 3,362 miles round-trip for their three road playoff games before winning the Super Bowl in 2010. They played the Philadelphia Eagles, the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears.

If the 49ers lose in Seattle, they probably would have to travel 12,430 miles round-trip — halfway around the world — for their three road playoff games, because they likely would have to win in Philadelphia, then in Green Bay and then in New Orleans just to make the Super Bowl.

Almost impossible.

The 2013 49ers learned this hard truth. They were arguably as good as the 2012 49ers that went to the Super Bowl, but that 2012 team won the NFC West. The 2013 49ers were a wild-card team that played three road playoff games in a row.

They won the first two — a remarkable accomplishment — but lost the third road playoff game in Seattle after traveling 10,834 miles in 14 days. The 49ers had nothing left during the fourth quarter of that NFC Championship game.

The 2012 Seahawks also were a great team — arguably as good as the 2013 Seahawks that won the Super Bowl. But the 2012 Seahawks were a wild-card team, and they had to travel 9,020 miles round trip in seven days — first to Washington, D.C., and then to Atlanta. They lost in the second round to the Falcons.

“We were a field goal away from getting it done,” Richard Sherman said of the 2013 Seahawks team. “We felt like we should have won it then.”

But they didn’t, because they were tired.

So if the 49ers lose this weekend in Seattle, they might still win their first road playoff game, and maybe even their second. But fatigue will hit them hard by the third road playoff game, and that could lead to a loss.

The 49ers, who started the season 8-0, have left themselves no margin for error. They have to win the season finale. They wouldn’t be in this position had they beaten the six-win Falcons at home two weeks ago or tied the Seahawks at home in November.

Against the Seahawks, the 49ers had the ball with 1:50 left during overtime, and the Seahawks were out of timeouts. Jimmy Garoppolo could have knelt down three plays in a row and the 49ers would have tied and guaranteed at least one home game in the playoffs. Instead, Garoppolo threw three straight incomplete passes, the 49ers took just 18 seconds off the clock, the Seahawks got the ball back and won.

“We’ve been able to win in a number of ways,” Shanahan said. “That’s why our team feels confident whether we’re playing our best or not. We’d much rather only have to play two games than three games, so that’s obviously what we’re going for. Regardless, we’re pumped to be in the playoffs, and whether we’re playing at home for two games, or on the road, we’re going to be excited and confident.”

Had the 49ers merely tied the Seahawks in November, this game on Sunday wouldn’t mean much.

Now, it will be the game of the season. Kind of exciting.

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