NFL Team Report - San Francisco 49ers - INSIDE SLANT

As soon as the 2014 NFL schedule could be digested, most analysts pointed to the Thanksgiving night game between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks as one of the must-see matchups of the season.

Little did they know that the first head-to-head of last year's NFC finalists would be even more important than anticipated, and for a somewhat different reason than most expected.

When the 49ers (7-4) and Seahawks (7-4) meet Thursday night at Levi's Stadium, it won't be for NFC supremacy. Heck, it won't even be for the top spot in the NFC West.

Rather, it will serve as a potential elimination game in the NFC playoff race, especially if the 49ers were to come up short.

In a season when it appears it will take an 11-5 record to reach the postseason in the NFC, the loser Thursday will be tagged with a fifth defeat with still four games remaining on the schedule -- including a rematch in Seattle in two weeks.

Niners coach Jim Harbaugh spent a good chunk of his press conference Monday sidestepping the importance of the game. Rather, he focused on just how well prepared his club is in the wake of three consecutive narrow wins.

"Probably the biggest thing is what our team's accomplished over the last three games, winning three games and they're as close as you can possible have games be," Harbaugh assessed. "You make a deposit in the toughness account and you'll be able to make withdrawals from that later down the road.

"We want to keep making those deposits."

The 49ers not only face the Seahawks twice among their last five opponents but also have matchups with Arizona (9-2) and San Diego (7-4) on the horizon.

Harbaugh recognizes that while the loser Thursday night might be in trouble, the winner won't get much of an opportunity to celebrate.

"We've been talking about how we're playing these as playoff games for some time now," he said of a team that was 4-4 earlier this month. "And we've played quite a few teams that are going to be in the playoffs this year.

"Now we're going to be in a stretch of playing more of those type of teams that you project to be in the playoffs. Excited about that. If we're good enough to be in it, then we'll know. We'll know soon enough."

SERIES HISTORY: 31st regular-season meeting. Series tied, 15-15. The teams have split their home-and-home series the past two seasons, each protecting its home turf. The difference: The 49ers' wins have been by a combined nine points; the Seahawks' wins have been 26- and 29-point blowouts. While another 49ers home win this week would give them a temporary edge in the series, the Seahawks could argue they already own the tie-breaker. They won the third -- and most critical -- meeting last season, a 23-17 nail-biter at home in the NFC Championship Game. It's the only time the franchises have ever met in the postseason.

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NFL Team Report - San Francisco 49ers - NOTES, QUOTES

--The 49ers would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs began today. But that status could change in a big way by the end of the day Thursday.

The 49ers (7-4) will wake up Thanksgiving day tied with Seattle (7-4) and Detroit (7-4) for the second-best record among non-division leaders in the NFC. The Seahawks currently have the tie-breaker edge for that second wild-card spot over the Lions, with the 49ers standing third in the pecking order.

A win by the 49ers on Thursday night would make them 8-4, vaulting them ahead of the Seahawks, who would fall to 7-5.