SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Even after an 8-8 season in 2014, the San Francisco 49ers found themselves scheduled for a whopping four nationally televised prime-time games.
That was a testament to the team's success in the three seasons that preceded the .500 year as well as the draw of a big-name coach in Jim Harbaugh. But as the Niners have fallen into the NFL abyss, so too has their national profile. Over the past two seasons, fans wanting to watch the Niners on television have mostly had to live in a local market broadcasting the game.
The 49ers played under the prime-time lights just three times total. Two of those were "Thursday Night Football" games that are given to nearly every NFL team each season. The other was the late "Monday Night Football" game against the Los Angeles Rams to open the 2016 season.
Otherwise, even when the Niners have appeared in prime time, they haven't done so on the bigger stage offered by being the sole game on "Monday Night Football" or on "Sunday Night Football."
But even after a 6-10 campaign last year, it's probably wise to expect that to change in 2018. No, the 2018 NFL schedule won't be released for a few months, but considering the Niners' red-hot finish and all the buzz they've already built for next season behind quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, they look to be just the right combination of up-and-coming team with tremendous franchise tradition to find themselves playing after the sun goes down.
With that in mind, here's an early look at some of the games that could have major prime-time appeal to the NFL's schedule makers and affiliated television networks:
at Green Bay Packers, Lambeau Field
Aaron Rodgers vs. Garoppolo in a game between two of the league's legacy franchises? The Packers and Niners had a good run of battles when the 49ers were last a legitimate contender and perhaps this could be the game that brings it back. Garoppolo has drawn some comparisons to Rodgers for his ability to make plays off-schedule, but even if you don't buy into those, the chance to see one of the game's established greats against a quarterback some believe can ascend to that level would undoubtedly be appealing to a national audience.
vs. Oakland Raiders, Levi's Stadium
This one almost seems like a slam dunk to land in some sort of prime-time format. Start with the fact that this will be the last chance for these two Bay Area teams to meet in the regular season and that alone makes it worth watching. Add in the return of Jon Gruden as Raiders coach and the chance to see him match up against Niners coach Kyle Shanahan (Gruden gave Shanahan his start in coaching in the NFL) as well as the interest in Garoppolo attempting to avoid Raiders star pass rusher Khalil Mack and there are storylines galore here. Oh, and if the Raiders keep linebacker NaVorro Bowman, he'd be making his first trip back to play against his long-time team. There are a couple of reasons this might not happen but it would seem to be hard to ignore.
vs./at Los Angeles Rams, Levi's Stadium or Los Angeles Coliseum
The Rams and Niners played one of the most entertaining games of the 2017 season on a Thursday night and that was before Garoppolo's arrival. Los Angeles rested its starters in the second meeting, essentially rendering that game meaningless. So the first 2018 game between these two teams will be one of the most anticipated on either schedule. The Rams and coach Sean McVay established themselves as the new kings of the NFC West and the 49ers are attempting to chase them. McVay vs. Shanahan has the potential to be one of the best battles of offensive minds in the league on a yearly basis and the amount of young talent on both sides could return this once-fierce rivalry to the glory days.