The San Francisco 49ers are an unstoppable juggernaut who will surely go undefeated, and this intro was definitely not written by a 49ers fan.* But on the off-chance they don’t go 16-0, who will have the honor of handing them their first loss of the season?
Looking at their schedule, the back half is much tougher than the first. They still have two games against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, including one on Monday Night Football in Week 10. There’s a stretch after that which includes consecutive games against the Packers, Ravens and Saints, plus their second meeting against the Rams.
In other words, there is plenty of room for losses. But where will they happen? Which team has the right stuff to handle not just Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but the stifling defense led by Richard Sherman and Nick Bosa? Let’s talk it through.
*it was definitely written by a 49ers fan
Christian D’Andrea: Seattle Seahawks
I’m sorry, Niners. I really do believe in your postseason seaworthiness. All the talent San Francisco has amassed across its defensive front is paying dividends — seriously, who do you focus on stopping when Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner are all rotating in and out of the trenches? The team’s running game has been nigh unstoppable, even after a handful of injuries. The 49ers are a well-rounded contender who can win football games a hundred different ways.
But there’s still a lot to prove in Santa Clara. These are the quarterbacks San Francisco has beaten en route to 8-0:
- Jameis Winston
- Andy Dalton
- Mason Rudolph
- Baker Mayfield
- Jared Goff
- Case Keenum
- Kyle Allen
- Kyler Murray
The top two names on that list, Mayfield and Goff, are each going through massive regressions in 2019. The rest are roughly replacement-level performers (with apologies to Murray, who will be much more as he grows into his role in Arizona, and Dalton/Keenum, whose supporting casts are butt).
On Monday night, that unit will be tasked with stopping NFL MVP frontrunner Russell Wilson. Seattle’s not invincible — it needed overtime to handle 2-6 Tampa Bay — but the Seahawks have the chops to force Shanahan’s team out of its comfort zone and into a boat race.
Wilson has taken his always-efficient game to a new level this fall thanks to the most powerful supporting cast of skill players Seattle’s seen since its Super Bowl days. Chris Carson looks like a reliable Marshawn Lynch stand-in (as much as any player can be), while Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf may be the most powerful 1-2 punch at wideout Wilson’s ever had (although I’d hear arguments for Doug Baldwin/Golden Tate).
As a result, the eighth-year pro is leading the NFL in touchdown rate (7.5 percent), interception rate (one in 293 passes), and passer rating (118.2). He’s still a nightmare to bring down behind the line of scrimmage, and if you leave him even a sliver of opportunity he’ll do stuff like this to you:
I have no doubt the Niners can find daylight against an unintimidating Seattle defense. I do doubt whether the San Francisco offense can keep up with Wilson and company.
Morgan Moriarty: Baltimore Ravens
It’s been a few days, and I still really can’t believe what I saw when I witnessed the Ravens completely annihilate the New England Patriots, 37-20. The Pats hadn’t lost a game since December 2018 before that game, too, mind you. While I agree with Christian that Seattle won’t exactly be a cakewalk for the 49ers, if they’re still unbeaten by the time they travel to Baltimore, the Ravens will be the ones to change that.
No disrespect to the QBs San Fran has faced so far this season, but I doubt any of them made any plays remotely close to this run Lamar Jackson had:
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) November 4, 2019
Perhaps one of the most surprising statistics from Sunday was just how dominant the Ravens’ offense was on the ground. Baltimore finished with 213 total rushing yards on 38 attempts for a high 5.6 yards per carry; coming into that game, the Pats were allowing just 85 yards on the ground per game.
While the 49ers’ defense has looked good so far, it’s giving up 103 rush yards per game. To stop the Ravens, you need to stop the run. I don’t feel half as confident in San Francisco’s defense as I did New England’s, so Baltimore can easily find success on the ground.
Adam Stites: Green Bay Packers
This would’ve been a more popular choice if we were asking the question after Week 8. But then the Packers had a bad loss to the Chargers, and Green Bay looks much less intimidating.
The Packers are still 7-2, though. Aaron Rodgers is still, ya know, Aaron Rodgers. He has 17 touchdowns with two interceptions in 2019 and a 104.4 passer rating. You shouldn’t expect to see any more teams hold Green Bay under 200 yards of offense like the Chargers did.
San Francisco has thrived on forcing mistakes, but those are hard to come by with Rodgers. So far in 2019, he’s thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions when he’s been under pressure. He also has a 102.0 passer rating when he gets the ball out of his hands in less than 2.5 seconds.
The 49ers’ defense is terrifying — especially the defensive line — but Rodgers is the one who could give it problems. The bigger question is if the Green Bay defense can stop the San Francisco rushing attack. If it can just do that enough to force Jimmy Garoppolo into a mistake or two, the Packers could easily be the team that hands the 49ers a blemish on their record.
James Brady: New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees is 6-3 against the 49ers as a starter with the Saints. They own some quality wins against him, including one in the Divisional Round during the 2011 season, but he’s been shredding complete defenses his entire career. He has great pocket presence, a lightning-quick release, and isn’t easily rattled. He can make huge plays in the face of even the toughest pressure.
What the 49ers need to do is rattle him. Jimmy Garoppolo has been impressive this season, but it’s unlikely the 49ers can compete with Brees on the scoreboard, provided the Saints are able to handle San Francisco’s defense.
Prior to Baltimore’s win over New England, I considered the Ravens the biggest threat to the 49ers’ undefeated streak. While I still have some concerns about the Seahawks (read as: Russell Wilson), the New England game likely gave the 49ers a whole lot to work with when it comes to gameplanning for what the Ravens will try and do to stop San Francisco’s defense.
Even if the 49ers survive the Ravens, they have to travel to New Orleans the next week. The Saints are a complete team, winning on the back of a conservative offense under Teddy Bridgewater while Brees was injured, and one of the league’s top defenses. That defense ranks fifth in the league in weighted DVOA (a stat that measures a team’s efficiency) by Football Outsiders, and they allow the fourth-fewest rushing yards per game at 84.3 — which could hinder the 49ers’ second-ranked rushing offense.
With Brees back, my guess is the Saints will be picking up their offensive stride to join their defense right as they enter the playoffs. They have some easier games before the 49ers in which they can build momentum. You know, more momentum than a 7-1 start already provides.