NFL’s Crystal Picture: Start the Playoffs Now

We’ve studied the material. Now, can we start the exam? The NFL postseason doesn’t launch for another four weeks, but the story lines and narratives and likely meaningful conference seedings already are defined. I’d request a time machine to skip over the folderol, except I don’t want to miss Christmas and a trip to Maui.

So, let’s project.

Can the 49ers, who again outmuscled the Seahawks in Bay Area sunshine and remain the one team that isn’t intimidated by the Pete Carroll cult swarm, somehow transfer their Sunday performance to a January day in Seattle? No, they cannot. A last-minue, 19-17 defeat aside, the Seahawks firmly remain the NFC’s team to beat because they own one of the great vice-grip home advantages in the history of American team sports. Keep replaying Frank Gore’s 51-yard burst as you wish, but the 49ers wilt like New Orleans and everyone else once they’re between the two imposing seating banks — kind of looks like a large jaw, ready to devour — of CenturyLink Field. The Niners lost twice there in the last 12 months by a combined 71-16, serving as more grist for Seattle’s 14-0 home record the last two seasons.

Even after winning and staying on pace for a wild-card berth, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh rejected a thought that he actually might enjoy these Seattle scrums. “Enjoy it? That’s not the word I would use,” Harbaugh said. “It feels like you go to the dentist chair and three and a half hours of getting root canal work done.”

Nor were the Seahawks fazed by their second loss in 13 games. Too often, the 49ers settled for field goals when they were poised to score touchdowns, and with the Seahawks ready to employ a healthy Percy Harvin as a versatile offensive weapon, they’ll have the most complete team in the league in all three phases. Cocky as ever after the loss, cornerback Richard Sherman proceeded to guarantee a Seattle victory should the teams meet in the playoffs. “We didn’t project it to be this way. We expected to blow them out,” Sherman said, per the Associated Press. “But they got the benefit of a few calls tonight throughout the game, and that helps you especially on third down. We will see them again, and it will be a different result.”

With an emotional brand of physicality instilled by Harbaugh, the 49ers appear to be the only team suited to an improbable NFC upset in Seattle. “I don’t know anybody in here that likes anybody on the Seahawks. If you find one, you let me know,” guard Alex Boone told USA Today, reflecting an edge that serves the team well. So does a Bay Area fan base that buys into the league’s most heated rivalry; a San Francisco radio station plays a parody song, derived from Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” called Pete Carroll Whines after the Seattle coach complained about his team’s latest drug suspension. Bah, bah, bah.

“We don’t like them, they don’t like us. I don’t have a magic answer for why it’s so intense, it just is,” 49ers tackle Joe Staley said. “It’s a physical game every time we play, and there’s just a lot of bad blood there.” But before the 49ers can own the Seahawks, they must win in Seattle. That isn’t happening this postseason.

Which leads to the next question: Whither Carolina? The Panthers weren’t impressive Sunday night in the biggest test of their recent renaissance, their league-leading defense turning to mush in a 31-13 loss to the Saints. Like the Seahawks, New Orleans is much better at home than on the road, and Drew Brees returned to form after the Monday night crash in Seattle with four more touchdown passes. This gives the Saints a beeline to the NFC’s No. 2 seed, improving their chances of playing the Seahawks in the NFC title game.

“We knew the challenge, especially on a short week playing against a great divisional opponent in the Carolina Panthers,” Brees said. “They had won eight in a row, so they were rolling. But we wanted to kind of hit our stride and get our swagger back and no better way than to come in the dome and do that. All three phases played exceptionally well. We got a great team win.”

Rob Ryan’s defense, too, played well, meaning he probably spent the wee hours buying drinks for the house at his favorite local dive bar. Cam Newton was sacked five times and, like his team, looked a year away from being a serious contender. Sure, we could see the 49ers and Panthers, as the NFC wild-cards, taking care of first-round business against vulnerable division winners such as Detroit, Dallas and Philadelphia. But who beats the Seahawks in Seattle and the Saints in New Orleans?

The Panthers are still talking tough, at least, though it doesn’t mean much after a thorough spanking. “It was a great measuring stick for who we are and where we have to go,” Newton said. “The best thing about this is we have an opportunity to face this team again in two weeks. Those guys just were better than us today. Are they better than us? No.”

Denial? Ron Rivera, the Carolina coach, was just as defiant. “I’m surprised and disappointed. We’re a better team than we played today,” he said. “They have the crowd behind them and they’re on turf, not natural grass, which is a little bit different. It helps them as far as their speed and their timing. The things that they do here, they do very well. We’ll see how things go when they come to Carolina.”

Brees continues to establish milestones that cement his place among the all-time greats. On a night when he became just the fifth quarterback to reach 50,000 career passing yards, he also became the first to produce at least 4,000 yards in eight straight seasons and 30 TD passes in six straight seasons. But the Panthers are right in one sense: He, like the Saints, are a product of their Superdome environment. I’d tell them to go win in Seattle, but just a week ago, they fell woefully short.

The only serious AFC team is the Broncos. As New England deals with an unprecedented injury epidemic — goodbye, Rob Gronkowski, gone with an ACL tear — and barely getting by every Sunday, the Patriots aren’t equipped to win in Denver in January even with the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady band-aids. Last week’s local media angle was Peyton Manning’s 3-7 record in games where the temperature, at kickoff, is 32 degrees or below. In those games, according to ESPN, he has thrown for more interceptions (12) than touchdown passes (11) while completing only 59.4 percent of his passes and throwing for only 214 yards a game. It was another attempt to question if his right arm, after decades of wear and tear and four neck surgeries, might turn into a wet noodle this postseason. And it came only two weeks after Manning, though more by fault of his defense than his own issues, lost to Brady on a cold night in Foxborough.

Well, on Sunday, Manning threw 59 passes in a 10-degree wind chill, completing 39 for 397 yards and four touchdown passes in a 51-28 win over Tennessee. That gives him 4,522 yards and 45 TD passes in what is the most productive quarterbacking season in NFL history, for a team that has scored 515 points in 13 games and is on pace as the most potent single-season offense in NFL history. This on a day when kicker Matt Prater broke a longstanding league record with a 64-yard field goal in the altitude. Manning’s cold-weather record, now 4-7, is more a reflection on ancient Indianapolis teams that couldn’t win in New England because of an inferior defense and a playoff loss to Baltimore last season, when the Broncos secondary infamously blew a coverage.

He is one of the greatest athletes ever in this country. Is he weary of the same criticism? And won’t he probably face 32-degrees-and-under conditions in two home playoff games, then in New Jersey in the Super Bowl? “I’m sure he’s tired of hearing it,’’ said Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, per “He’s been playing great all season, he’s been playing great his entire career and just to hear people nit-picking about something like the cold, for him to be able to come out there and put 50 on the board and put that whole cold thing to bed, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see that behind him.”

When asked afterward, Manning tried to dismiss the cold-weather angle in his press conference. “I wasn’t trying to answer it because I didn’t give it any validation in the first place,” he said. “We had a good plan, and I thought we threw the ball well and guys caught the ball well.”

But his well-honed political correctness finally burst in an interview with Denver radio station KOA. “Whoever wrote that narrative,” Manning said, “can shove it where the sun don’t shine.”

His blood is boiling, meaning the temperature will be warm in his postseason soul no matter the conditions outside. Can Kansas City win in Denver? The Chiefs have swung twice against the Broncos and missed badly. Can Cincinnati win in Denver? Vontaze Burfict and the defense are impressive, but the Bengals continue to ebb and flow with the unpredictable play of quarterback Andy Dalton. Indianapolis has regressed. Baltimore and Miami don’t belong. The hardest obstacle for Manning seems the media and their thermometers.

So until further notice, as I’ve been writing since August, expect the Seahawks and Broncos in the chilled Jersey swamps, which is just what the NFL wants in its backyard: the puffed-up, drug-violating renegades from Pacific Northwest against the most likeable athlete and pitchman in American sports. We’ve written the script.

Now, open the Broadway show.