TAMPA, Fla. -- Two scenarios exist for the 49ers to clinch a playoff berth Sunday, and it's important to note how each begins: They must beat the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Then they'll also need a loss by the Arizona Cardinals, coupled with a loss or tie by either the Dallas Cowboys (Scenario 1) or the Philadelphia Eagles (Scenario 2).
Such are the 49ers' not-so-simple sweepstakes with three regular-season games remaining and a wild-card berth their likeliest reward.
"This game, for us and all intents and purposes, is just as important as last week's was," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "With the division title realistically not in the picture, all these games weigh the same."
The 49ers (9-4) indeed can't afford a letdown game against the Buccaneers, who have won four of their past five games after an 0-8 start.
"Yeah, that's something we're aware of," quarterback Colin Kaepernick said last week of a trap-game scenario.
Amid the sleepy specter of a rare 10 a.m. (PT) kickoff, the 49ers will attempt to win in Tampa for the first time in 20 years.
Strangely enough, their coach's employment status is under scrutiny, as was the case in their past two visits: a January 2003 playoff loss that ended Steve Mariucci's tenure, and a November 2004 defeat amid a report Dennis Erickson wanted the University of Washington job.
This past week, Jim Harbaugh's name surfaced as a potential candidate to take over at the University of Texas. He's stuck to his protocol and refused to comment on any job but his current one. Jed York, the 49ers CEO, said he loves having Harbaugh and wants to pursue a contract extension after the season.
Such speculation hasn't turned serious, nor has it come off as a distraction inside the 49ers locker room.
Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano figured to be on his way out of the NFL not long ago. His second season started horrendously. Josh Freeman got dumped as the franchise quarterback, running backs Doug Martin and Mike James were lost to injuries, and a staph outbreak hit the locker room.
"We were legitimately finding ways to lose games," Schiano said. "It was some of the craziest things we've seen. There were a lot of distractions."
Their offense still doesn't pose much of a threat, not when it ranks 31st in total yardage, passing yards per game and third-down efficiency. Then again, the 49ers aren't a juggernaut: theirs is the 32nd-ranked passing attack, and Kaepernick's 57.2 completion percentage ranks 33rd.
Opposing that 49ers offense will be their former safety Dashon Goldson, who has five unnecessary-roughness penalties among the Buccaneers' league-high 106 penalties.
While Goldson faces his old team, so does 49ers cornerback Eric Wright, who returns to Tampa Bay after playing there last season. Wright's first interception this season helped seal last Sunday's 19-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Wright again will be the nickel back for a unit that's excelled the past month in preventing second-half touchdowns. Over the past five games, the 49ers have allowed only one touchdown after halftime, that being a last-minute score by the St. Louis Rams in San Francisco's 23-13 win Dec. 1.
The recipe for that defensive success: the players' bend-don't-break mentality, and Fangio's ability to adjust schemes with his assistants.
"That's a good observation," Harbaugh said, "but our defense has been solid all four quarters. When you look back, you say after numerous games: 'They really played well, everybody contributed, they played good team defense.'
"And that's very important when you're playing a big game on the road like this one."