Are the 49ers a legitimate Super Bowl contender?

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November 8th, 2019

Hardly anyone had an eye on the San Francisco 49ers ahead of the 2019 season, at least as a Super Bowl hopeful. Yet heading into Week 10, the storied franchise is the lone undefeated team remaining, after the New England Patriots (Super Bowl LIV favorites) fell to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

With the regular season past the halfway mark, is it time to officially crown the 49ers as legitimate contenders, or will the remaining schedule prove the Niners have been pretenders all along?

Preseason outlook

Prior to the kickoff of the 100th season of the NFL, many pundits predicted San Francisco would fall somewhere near the bottom half of the league. The Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks seemed more equipped to top the NFC West, and oddsmakers gave the 49ers +3500 odds to win the Super Bowl as a result.

The Niners’ quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, had sat out most of the 2018 season, after he tore his ACL in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs. His ability to lead the 49ers to prominence was a major question mark, as the sixth-year QB had spent the first half of his career backing up Tom Brady in New England.

Garoppolo did win all five of the games he started for the 49ers in 2017, but his seven touchdowns to five interceptions didn’t leave much to write home about.

The makeup of a top-10 offense

In 2019 Garoppolo is back to full strength and has accumulated 1,806 yards, 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions and is enjoying the best completion percentage of his career (70.8%). Tight end George Kittle has been his favorite target and has tacked on a team-high 541 yards on 46 catches.

However, Emmanuel Sanders may emerge as the premier weapon for the 49ers, as he has turned 11 receptions into 137 yards and two touchdowns through his first two games since he was acquired via trade with the Denver Broncos.

While the pass offense is improving week by week, the linchpin of San Francisco’s offense is its No. 2-ranked rushing attack. Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. have each made key contributions in the run game. Breida is the lead back, with 524 rushing yards on 99 carries, though Coleman and Wilson have more touchdowns, at five and four, respectively.
In the 49ers’ 51-13 butchering of Carolina, Coleman recorded 105 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns and caught a pass for a score. Mostert is more of a third option and has tallied 307 yards and one TD on 55 carries.

Defense is the name of the game

The Niners defense is ranked first in yardage allowed (241 per game), second in points allowed (12.8), first in passing defense (138.1 yards per game) and has surrendered just three rushing touchdowns, the second-fewest in the league.

Nick Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft, has been a leader of the defense. In the first eight games of his professional career, Bosa has notched seven sacks (the most on the team), 17 solo tackles, one interception and one forced fumble.

Former Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman, now 31, is also experiencing a resurgence. The cornerback has registered 21 solo tackles, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and eight passes defended through his first eight games.

The 49ers rank second in opponent completion percentage (56.19%), fourth in takeaways per game (two), seventh in turnover margin (+0.5) and second in average scoring margin (+16.6).

What does the first half of the season indicate?

San Francisco possesses quite the résumé, but as New England demonstrated, you can’t place much weight into performance without considering strength of schedule.

Through the first four games of the season, the Niners’ slate looked arguably as padded as New England’s. San Francisco defeated a new Tampa Bay offense hemorrhaging under Jameis Winston’s ineptitude, drilled the now 0-8 Bengals, topped Pittsburgh in its first full game without Ben Roethlisberger and defeated a Browns team that hasn’t come close to matching the hype surrounding it.
at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
W 31-17
at Cincinnati Bengals
W 41-17
Pittsburgh Steelers
W 24-20
Cleveland Browns
W 31-3
at Los Angeles Rams
W 20-7
at Washington Redskins
W 9-0
Carolina Panthers
W 51-13
at Arizona Cardinals
W 28-25
The next stretch of games built the 49ers some clout. On a road trip to division rival Los Angeles, San Francisco held the Rams to a lone touchdown in the first quarter and prevented them from scoring another point from there. The following week San Francisco visited head coach Kyle Shanahan’s former team, Washington, and handed the Redskins a 9-0 defeat on a nearly unplayable, rain-soaked field.

The matchup with the Panthers looked enticing on paper, but the Niners intercepted previously undefeated starting quarterback Kyle Allen three times and sent him packing with a 4.7 QBR. In Week 9 the Arizona Cardinals kept it close at home on a short week, but the 49ers had a steady hold on the game—for the most part—and fended off the Cardinals’ fourth-quarter comeback.

Midseason outlook

San Francisco has provided plenty of evidence it has a formidable squad, but the true test of its might will come over the next eight games.
Seattle Seahawks
Arizona Cardinals
Green Bay Packers
at Baltimore Ravens
at New Orleans Saints
Atlanta Falcons
Los Angeles Rams
at Seattle Seahawks
It won’t be easy to go undefeated, let alone 5-3, from here on out. The NFC is head and shoulders above the AFC in 2019, and even the bottom dweller of the NFC West, Arizona, has put up a stronger fight as the season has progressed.

The Niners should make the playoffs, even if they slip and end up as a wild-card entry. The problem is they’ll have to plow through some combination of the Packers, Vikings, Saints, Cowboys, and one of their division foes. The 49ers will be battle tested and worn, but do they belong any less than the other teams in the current playoff picture? No.

The Niners are a legitimate contender, and even have history on their side. San Francisco has already won the Super Bowl twice in Miami, the site of Super LIV, and the last three teams that earned Super Bowl titles in that city started the season 5-0.

It’ll be a hard-fought journey to reach the ultimate game of the NFL season, but if the Super Bowl goes to the most complete team, it'll be San Francisco hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the sixth time in franchise history.

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