After a tough overtime loss to Seattle two weeks earlier, and a comeback needed to beat Arizona last week, it seemed as if the 49ers were sliding down the mountain after hitting their peak.
Instead, their peak was yet to come.
In fact, if Sunday night’s win was any indication, the 49ers may be on top of the mountain for good.
San Francisco (10-1) dominated Green Bay (8-3) in just about every facet of the game in a 37-8 stomping over the NFC contending Packers.
Jimmy Garoppolo — 14 of 20, 253 yards, two touchdowns — thoroughly outplayed Aaron Rodgers, as the 49ers defense sacked the Packers quarterback five times, and limited him to one of the worst games of his career — 20 of 33, 104 yards.
“We feel like we’re the best team in the league and the only people who can beat us are us,” 49ers running back Raheem Mostert said after the game. “That’s our mentality.”
Despite the brilliance of NFL MVP leader Russell Wilson two weeks ago, the 49ers did indeed, beat themselves in their lone loss of the season to the Seahawks in overtime.
This week, they beat the Packers so bad that it’d be hard to argue they aren’t the conference’s best team at the moment.
But there’s more to come. This was just the beginning of a tough stretch that next features visits to Baltimore (8-2) and New Orleans (9-2), and ends with a Week 17 trip to Seattle (9-2), which will likely decide the NFC West, and maybe, the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
San Francisco — along with New Orleans — fields one of the NFL’s best rosters and forward-thinking coaching staffs under head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Young playmakers like George Kittle — the NFL’s best tight end — and Nick Bosa — the NFL’s best young edge rusher — represent a young, talented team.
Rookie Deebo Samuel — their wide receiver out of the second round of the draft this past spring — has improved each week, and his race to the end zone has shown us what we already know — that he is one of the best playmakers of his draft class, which includes the likes of Josh Jacobs, Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown and Terry McLaurin.
The aforementioned Bosa is just an utter force along the defensive line. If it weren’t for Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (see below), he’d be a slam dunk DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) winner.
He’s transformed a defensive line of underachieving first-round picks into a five or six-man rotation of talented players, which includes offseason acquisition Dee Ford.
Then, there’s Richard Sherman.
The brash former Seahawk finds himself yet again in the spotlight, and once again, he’s earned it. After the game, Sherman and the 49ers were already mentioning the Super Bowl.
“Because we felt it,” Sherman said. “You feel the energy in the building. You feel the talent.”
All the talent in the world on one football team can be mitigated by a bad quarterback, just ask the Chicago Bears.
But in Garoppolo — 18-3 record as a starter — San Francisco has one of the game’s brightest stars, who at least belongs in the conversation with the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and others going forward.
“He’s the leader of the team,” Sherman said. “Jimmy Garoppolo is our leader and we will follow him into the darkest of dark.”
Jimmy isn’t as flashy as some of the aforementioned young star QBs (Mahomes, Jackson, etc.) but he has the accuracy, mechanics and bravado to get the job done.
It took help from the defense earlier in the season to shake off some of the rust probably caused from his season-ending ACL injury last year. But the 49ers franchise passer is rounding into form.
As are the 49ers, who don’t give a damn about what you think of them and their quarterback.
The real season begins after Thanksgiving, and San Francisco will enter that period coming off their best performance yet.
GILMORE, PATRIOTS DEFENSE HALT COWBOYS
In a nasty battle in which both offenses slogged though the wind and rain (and defenses), it was America’s most hated team that defeated ‘America’s Team.’
Patriots 13, Cowboys 9, in a game that shall not be remembered years for now.
But if there are any takeaways from this game, they are these:
– This Patriots defense (8.0 points per game allowed in 10 wins) is the best defense Bill Belichick has ever had in New England.
– Stephon Gilmore is the best cornerback in the NFL since Darrelle Revis in his ‘Revis Island’ heyday.
Gilmore has made quite the case for the NFL’s DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) award — in a race that includes the Rams’ Aaron Donald and 49ers rookie Nick Bosa. He’s the league’s best cornerback by a wide margin, specializing in blanketing man coverage.
On Sunday, he virtually erased Cowboys No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper (two targets, zero catches), intercepted Dak Prescott, and left the NFC East-leading Cowboys — who entered the contest with the most yards per game on offense — in a frustrated state.
“With the makeup of this team, I shouldn’t be this frustrated,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones vented after the game.
“Thats 100 percent coaching,” Jones said of the Cowboys special teams woes, which included a blocked punt by Matthew Slater. “One hundred percent coaching.”
The Patriots are well coached, of course, under Bill Belichick. But you can’t underestimate the talent on this unit. Jonathan Jones has turned into one of the best (if not, the best) slot cornerbacks in the game. Kyle Van Noy and John Simon are perhaps the league’s most underrated duo on the edge.
Ditto for the duo of Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton, who form sort of a two-man defensive line on many occasions, and act as 3-4 style defensive lineman, attacking gaps and taking on blockers, with little to show for it on the stat sheet.
Then, of course, there is the athletic Jamie Collins and the veteran leadership trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower.
This is easily the best defense that we’ve ever seen in New England during the Belichick era.
And it’s come at an opportune time, as the defense is the main reason this Patriots team is 10-1 and not 6-5.
The offense has sputtered in the past month or two. Some of it is 42-year-old Tom Brady’s fault, and some is not. This week was less of his fault than it was during the uninspiring (on offense) 17-10 win in Philadelphia last week.
Brady — 17 of 37, 190 yards, one touchdown — was fairly accurate on a number of throws that fell incomplete on Sunday. Newcomers N’Keal Harry (one catch, 10-yard touchdown) and Jakobi Meyers (four catches, 74 yards) had memorable moments, but also memorable drops. The two had an uptick in playing time with Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett out due to injury.
Julian Edelman (eight catches, 93 yards) was the only hyper-reliable target for Brady.
The running game got something going with the return of Isaiah Wynn at left tackle, but Brady was still sacked twice and pressured on several drop backs.
The offense has not looked good. That much we know. But there is room for improvement. The offensive line and running game should only get better from here on out, and that is a complimentary facet that Brady will need. Throwing 45 times or more a game with lesser-known pass catchers (and winning) has been an occasional staple of Brady’s career, but at age 42, it isn’t ideal.
As Harry and Sanu, in particular, continue to play with Brady, their chemistry should improve. And then, the offense will improve.
This Patriots defense can lead the way to a seventh Super Bowl title. But chances are, at some point, the offense will need to lead the way in a victory, and that moment will likely come in the postseason.
That moment didn’t come this week versus the talented Cowboys. Or last week versus the Eagles. But it’s coming.
It’d be unwise to bet on Brady not being ready for that moment.
NFL MVP RACE
1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. After a beautiful touchdown throw on a flea flicker early on, Wilson — 13 of 25, 200 yards, one interception, six sacks — struggled in Philadelphia. He still has a narrow lead in this race.
2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. He’s right there with Wilson, but will likely need to beat the Rams and 49ers these next two games to pass him.
3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. There’s a bit of a gap between Wilson/Jackson and Watson at this point, but Deshaun is about as valuable a player as any in this league.
4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers. The Panthers’ playoff hopes are likely over, but Christian McCaffrey’s incredible season has continued. Although the MVP award is almost definitely going to a quarterback, the race for OPOY (Offensive Player of the Year) between McCaffrey and Michael Thomas is a fun one.
5. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints. See above. Thomas has been sensational this season, and in every season in his young career. Could you imagine a Super Bowl 54 matchup between him and Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore?
Next up: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
THE BETTER HALF
1. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) (Last week: 1). I have a hunch that the Ravens might struggle versus a tough Rams defense tonight after going east to west. Let’s see how they respond in this tough predicament.
2. San Francisco 49ers (10-1) (Last week: 3). That was one of the biggest statement wins of the year. Now, they’ll get the red-hot Ravens in Baltimore.
3. New England Patriots (10-1) (Last week: 2). This is the best defense of the Bill Belichick era. They need something out of this offense, but the defense can carry this team to a title — they just need help. The real season begins after Thanksgiving. Well, Thanksgiving is here. In a year in which the offense looks as dysfunctional as ever, can Brady lift them up in his 20th season?
4. New Orleans Saints (9-2) (Last week: 4). They were lucky to not be down three in the final minutes, thanks to a bad miss by Panthers kicker Joey Slye. But that was a quality win, regardless. The Saints may quietly have the most complete team in football.
5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 6). Like the Patriots last week, the Seahawks had to eke out a tough win in Philadelphia. They’ll need to keep pace with San Francisco in the NFC West, which is possible thanks to the 49ers tough schedule.
6. Green Bay Packers (8-3) (Last week: 5). That was one rough performance by Aaron Rodgers. I doubt this will become a trend. They’ll bounce back. They’ll have to, with this next team right on their tail.
7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The Vikings were rewarded during their bye week, thanks to Green Bay’s let down in San Francisco.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) (Last week: 8). Patrick Mahomes had an ugly game in last week’s win, but in an AFC with just two real contenders (New England, Baltimore) at the moment, the Chiefs could be waiting in the wings to join the party.
9. Houston Texans (7-4) (Last week: 13). That was a big win over AFC South rival Indianapolis. Now, they get the Patriots.
10. Dallas Cowboys (6-5) (Last week: 9). The weather conditions helped, but the Cowboys were completely shut down on offense. They’ll need to take out their frustrations on the Bills this Thanksgiving.
11. Los Angeles Rams (6-4) (Last week: 10). Their offense has been horrid, but their defense has quietly had a good stretch. Can they slow down Lamar Jackson tonight?
12. Indianapolis Colts (6-5) (Last week: 11).That’s another rough loss for the Colts, considering they led 17-10 at one point in the fourth quarter. Still, they have a shot to take back the lead in the AFC South if they can pull even with the Texans this week. They’ll have to beat a tough Titans team and hope for a Houston (vs Patriots) loss.
13. Buffalo Bills (8-3) (Last week: 15). They beat up on yet another subpar opponent. Let’s see what they do in Dallas on Thursday. They’ll have to prove that they’re no turkey (I’m sorry).
14. Tennessee Titans (6-5) (Last week: NR). Here come the Titans. What a job Ryan Tannehill has done these past few weeks. He’s been inspiring.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) (Last week: 16). I really believe the Steelers were a sure-fire playoff team with Ben Roethlisberger this season. They probably would have been an AFC contender, too. Still, they’re in the mix. If the season ended today, they’d be in as a No. 6 seed. That’s incredible.
16. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) (Last week: 12). Despite another ugly loss, the Eagles control their own destiny in the NFC East. Four two-win teams and the Cowboys stand in their way. They’ll likely need to win every one of those, and surely their game with Dallas. This offense is riddled with injuries but Carson Wentz (nine turnovers in last six games) still needs to play better. He’s been atrocious lately.
Next up: Carolina, Oakland, Cleveland, N.Y. Jets, L.A. Chargers