After five weeks of the season, just two of the NFL’s 32 teams own perfect records. That one of them is the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots is no surprise whatsoever. That the other is the San Francisco 49ers – who haven’t posted a winning season for six years – is a little more so.
The 49ers annihilated the Cleveland Browns 31-3 on Monday night to improve to 4-0, with the 5-0 Patriots the only other team in the league boasting a 100 per cent start.
That Kyle Shanahan’s men can be spoken about in the same sentence as the Pats (remember, the season has barely started) has launched the 49ers into a parallel universe compared to where they were eight months ago, when they finished as the second-worst team in the league.
Their resurgence may come as a surprise. But there has been little luck involved in the boys from the Bay Area’s perfect start to 2019 – save for maybe the five turnovers made against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3. When you make that many errors in an NFL game, you really should get beat. Instead they found a way to win, and they’ve passed every test they have faced…so far.
But how would they fare under the lights at Levi’s Stadium on Monday night? There are games in the NFL, and then there is Monday Night Football. America, the world, is watching and Prime Time can do funny things to players and teams. They can freeze up under the intense heat.
The 49ers, however, sizzled under the Santa Clara lights and torched the Browns, holding arguably the best wide receiver in the league – Odell Beckham Jr – to just 27 yards receiving, while bright young quarterback Baker Mayfield was kept in the shadows by Jimmy Garoppolo.
Beckham’s two catches matched how many he caught the previous week against Baltimore when he had a career-low 20-yard performance.
For last year’s No1 draft pick Mayfield, it was even worse. He completed just eight of 22 passes for a career-low 100 yards, a miserable 13.4 passer rating, threw two interceptions, fumbled twice and was sacked four times before being pulled in the fourth quarter. It’s the first time in 18 career starts that he failed to throw a touchdown pass.
There were many illuminating performances under the Monday Night Lights for the hosts though. Running back Matt Breida rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown. Tevin Coleman, on his return from injury, rushed for 97 yards and a score. George Kittle grabbed his first TD of the season, while quarterback Garoppolo had a quietly efficient game.
A terrifying defence was led on the field by the No2 overall draft pick, Nick Bosa, who picked the biggest night of the season to shine – five tackles, two sacks – and on the sidelines by defensive co-ordinator Robert Saleh who might have been fired in the off-season.
The defence – led by veteran cornerback Richard Sherman – is beginning to climb to the scarily high levels of the Jim Harbaugh era.
Colin Kaepernick’s unique quarterback style captured the imagination in 2012 but it was the Niners’ stellar defence that got them to the Super Bowl, and the NFC Championship game the year after.
NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis was a linebacker corps to strike fear into any team, in any generation.
In 2019, read defensive linemen Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford and Bosa, and linebackers Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner.
Ford, Bosa and Alexander are all new additions to a unit that struggled under Saleh last year, someone many Niners fans hoped would be let go – especially as they set an NFL record for the fewest turnovers in a season (seven).
They have matched that in their first three games this year and added four more on Monday to sit joint second overall with the Green Bay Packers – only the Patriots and Steelers (12) have more.
Other numbers prove their prowess too; the Niners are in the top five for total yards allowed (257.5 – 2nd), passing yards (175.8 – 2nd) and rushing yards (81.8 – 5th).
On offence, meanwhile, the run game is hitting its stride. It could have been derailed when Coleman, considered the No1 back, missed four weeks after injuring himself on the opening day. In his absence Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr have stepped up admirably – with Breida and Mostert set to share the work with former Atlanta Falcons man Coleman going forward.
A huge component of that back-field committee is full-back Kyle Juszczyk – his injury against the Browns will be a concern – who is making the position cool again. They have all contributed to the 49ers posting a game average 200 yards rushing this season – which leads the league.
In the passing game Shanahan has one of the league’s top three tight ends in Kittle – who is legitimately their No1 receiver. The 49ers don’t possess a five-star wideout of the DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill or Devante Adams gold standard variety. What they do have is Kittle – who set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end last season with 1,377.
The receiver situation is slightly opaque but there is certainly talent at the position. Marquise Goodwin, 28, is approaching his peak but Kendrick Bourne, Richie James (both 24), Dante Pettis and Deebo Samuel (both 23) possess plenty of promise and potential.
Overall, the 49ers have accrued 427.2 yards of offence per game – fourth best in the league.
Before Monday night, they beat the Buccaneers 31-17 in Tampa on opening day and then brutalised the Bengals in Cincinnati 41-17 before overcoming adversity to defeat Pittsburgh 24-20 at home. The carving up of Cleveland is the third time in four games San Fran have surpassed 30 points.
Fortune favoured them against the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers. But more than luck, victory was a result of something else – the 49ers are simply an all-round much better team than they have been in the six years since they lost the 2013 NFC Championship game to the Seattle Seahawks. That came a year after losing Super Bowl XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens.
They have been in freefall ever since – posting seasons of 8-8, 5-11, 2-14, 6-10 and 4-12. But things are finally looking up.
They began the week defending a 3-0 start – they had not done likewise since 1998. The last time they opened up with four straight wins was 1990, when the reigning Super Bowl champions lost the NFC Championship game.
As the records keep tumbling for the 49ers, so too do the team’s critics and naysayers. But, just because they’re on par with the Patriots right now, does not mean they’ll be there with them come February 2 at Super Bowl LIV.
Even the Patriots are not guaranteed of featuring – although only a fool would feel they won’t at least be in the reckoning – in the grand finale, taking place at Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins.
For now San Fran should just ride the current wave of euphoria. Named after the prospectors who flooded northern California during the Gold Rush, the 49ers are steeped in rich Super Bowl success. After years of famine, who’s to say they won’t find fortune once more this season.
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