San Francisco 49ers fans are daring to dream of glory after the team secured a thrilling blowout win against the Packers in Week 12. It was billed as a marquee contest between two of the best teams in the NFC, but it turned into a decidedly lopsided affair. The showdown in Santa Clara showcased all of the Niners’ strengths – ruthless pass rushing, a dizzyingly varied passing game and solid running. It also sent out a message to the rest of the league: the 49ers are serious contenders for Super Bowl LIV.
They are now on course to host their first playoff game since moving to Levi’s Stadium in 2013 after going 10-1 for the season. That leaves them one win ahead of the Seahawks and the Saints, with the best record in the NFC. The odds on a San Francisco triumph keep shrinking with each passing week and they are now second favorites to win the conference in the latest football betting. But just how good have the 49ers actually been this year? Do they justify the hype, or will they run out of steam?
The NFL’s Most Ferocious Defense
The Niners’ snarling defense left Aaron Rodgers, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game, looking utterly helpless in Week 12. The future Hall of Famer was sacked five times, hurried on six occasions and left battered and bruised by two monstrous hits as he released the ball. The 49ers pulled it off without Pro Bowl rusher Dee Ford in the lineup, and they ended up holding Rodgers to just 104 yards.
The 49ers have given up the fewest yards per game in the league, and that is testament to their relentless pass rush and general aggression. The defense benefits from the talents of several first-round picks – Ford, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, and Nick Bosa, who leads the NFL with 44 sacks – and the mixing of its blitzes and coverages frequently leaves opponents shellshocked. This is a championship-caliber defense, on the brink of a historically special, and it is certainly looking Super Bowl worthy right now.
An Improving Offense
At present the Niners’ defense looks capable of covering for weaknesses in the team, namely a running game in danger of fizzling out and QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s limitations. Yet there are signs of improvement in the San Francisco offense. It flourished against a Packers defense that usually gives opponents nightmares with its intense pass rush. Garoppolo was distinctly average for the first half of the game, but he came alive in the third quarter and hit tight-end George Kittle for a 61-yard touchdown. Kittle ended the game with six catches for 129 yards.
It was a balanced offensive display, with two running touchdowns, 253 passing yards and a season high 145.8 passer rating for Garoppolo. The defense is excellent and that is spurring the rest of the franchise on and inspiring improvements across the board. The disparity between the special teams when the 49ers met the Packers was also clear. The offense will need to continue on an upward curve if San Francisco is to seize glory this year, but fans should be encouraged.
The early stages of the season saw Garoppolo plagued by inaccuracy and a lack of inspiration. He was also underwhelming in the 49ers’ only defeat of the season, which came at the hands of the Seahawks in Week 10. Yet his overall performance has improved greatly since then, as evidenced by his game-winning touchdown against Arizona and his general neatness and accuracy against the Packers.
A Deep and Rounded Squad
The Niners’ fabled triumphs of yesteryear were built on monumental performances from titans of the game, like Jerry Rice and Joe Montana. This year’s San Francisco is all about collective strength as opposed to individual virtuosity. It is blessed with a deep squad, which is also extremely well rounded. Tight ends and fullbacks are versatile and deployed all over the place to confuse opponents. Fourteen players have scored touchdowns, and previously unheralded heroes are emerging all the time. Kittle is a fifth-round draft pick, while undrafted free agent Matt Breida has been on fire.
Salary cap restrictions mean that just seven players on the roster earn more than $5 million right now. Stars like Bosa, Kittle and Breida are on less than $1 million. The franchise has drafted really well in recent years, and that is starting to bear fruit on the field of play. These are players the fans can get behind. An electric atmosphere has permeated the Levi’s Stadium for the first time, and it will be thrilling to see how it comes alive in the postseason.
Stern Tests Lie Ahead
The 49ers certainly look like the real deal. Right now they are among the three or four best teams in the league. Yet we will have an even better idea of just how serious they are once they have completed the second and third legs of a daunting trio of games. The Packers were swept aside, but now they must lock horns with superb Baltimore and New Orleans offenses. Lamar Jackson and Drew Brees loom large on the horizon, but it would now be unsurprising to see the Niners’ defense nullify them after that demolition job on Rodgers.