San Francisco 49ers: Why Niners Are Best Team in League
And yes, this does includes the Green Bay Packers.
As Week 10 comes to a close and the collected media begins to release their NFL power rankings, each and every one will begin with "Green Bay No. 1, San Francisco No. 2."
Certainly, Green Bay is having a year to remember. Aaron Rodgers is having one of the greatest seasons of any quarterback ever, and they deserve to sit at 8-0 (and soon to be 9-0, unless they can't beat a 2-6 Minnesota Vikings team in Green Bay tonight).
But San Francisco deserves to be in the conversation for the NFL's top spot. They've played a harder schedule to this point. They are pulling off clutch victory after clutch victory. And when you look at where they were when the offseason started, they've overcome more adversity than the rest of the NFL combined.
Let's take a look at why San Francisco deserves the title as the NFL's top team.
San Francisco Is Beating a Difficult Schedule
So the Packers obviously have the tougher schedule, correct? Not so fast.
Teams that San Francisco has played that are contending for a playoff spot: Dallas, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Detroit and the New York Giants. Teams still to play include near playoff locks in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Teams that Green Bay has played that are contending for a playoff spot: New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta and San Diego. Teams still to play include Tampa Bay, Detroit (twice), the New York Giants and a rematch against Chicago
Those are two considerably competitive and comparable schedules. The teams Green Bay has played have a combined record of 34-45, while the teams San Francisco has played have a record of 36-36.
So the 49ers opponents have broken even? That's not incredibly impressive. What is impressive is that four of those 49er victories—Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington—were on the road and in Eastern time zones.
The biggest game left for San Francisco comes on Thanksgiving in Baltimore against a Ravens team that plays a lot like the 49ers.
And while it's easy to fault San Francisco's weak division, they've played plenty of strong teams both at home and on the road. If you can discredit the 49ers' opponents, you have to discredit Green Bay's just as much, if not more.
San Francisco's Defense Is Truly Elite
San Francisco's defense isn't just good, they are elite.
They've given up the fewest points so far this season at 15.3 points allowed per contest. Their run defense gives up just 73 yards a contest and haven't given up a rushing touchdown all season. The NFL record for fewest rushing touchdowns allowed in a season is two, a record held by three teams, most recently the 1971 Minnesota Vikings.
The San Francisco secondary isn't as stellar as the run defense, giving up 260 yards a game, which is 25th-worst in the league. And in terms of total net yards, the 49ers have given up 3,002 yards on the season, which ranks only 12th in the league.
So why are they elite? They stop their opponents when it counts.
The 49ers bend, they don't break. Teams in the red zone manage to score a touchdown on San Francisco just 33 percent of the time. They also lead the league in takeaways with 21 forced turnovers on the season.
Where Green Bay wins by outscoring their opponents, San Francisco wins with a dominant defense. And the old sports adage is "defense wins championships."
San Francisco Continues To Pull off Victories in the Clutch
The 49ers have proven multiple times this season that they can come back from a deficit in the clutch, and they've proven they can hold a lead in the clutch.
In other words, they're just clutch all around.
In Week 3, San Francisco found themselves down 23-3 against the Eagles in the third quarter. They rallied off three straight touchdowns and forced a late-game fumble by Philadelphia to secure the victory.
In Detroit, they scored the game-winning touchdown with just under two minutes to play and then forced the Lions to turn it over on downs after they gained just five yards.
And at home against New York in Week 10, they upset the usual Eli Manning script when they didn't allow the Giants the game-winning score. New York stood on the San Francisco 10-yard line and had three chances at a two-yard conversion and came up short every time.
San Francisco knows how to win close games, and that's a huge reason why they're 8-1.
San Francisco Offense Wins with a Complete Team Effort
When considering odds for the 2011 Super Bowl, Grantland's Bill Simmons dismissed the 49ers chances of 10-1 by saying "San Francisco at 10-to-1? Not with Alex Smith."
This is a common thread for any discussion surrounding the 49ers. They can't win big as long as Smith is at the helm.
But San Francisco keeps on winning
Smith is not a top-five quarterback in the NFL. None of the 49ers receivers are top 20 among their field. Frank Gore and Vernon Davis are probably the only two members of the San Francisco offense that are considered near the top of their respected positions.
And yet even when Frank Gore was hampered by injuries against the Giants and was unable to gain even a yard, San Francisco scored two touchdowns and got close enough four times for David Akers to sink four field goals.
Despite Smith's reputation as an inconsistent quarterback, San Francisco is tied for second for the fewest giveaways with only eight on the season. The offense watches the defense force turnovers and then don’t give it back.
The 49ers don't have a big-name gun-slinging quarterback or a 100-plus-yard-per-game receiver. What they have is one of the most complete offensives units, one that is complied of good weapons that at any moment could make the big play.
That is how San Francisco's offense helps win games. They avoid costly turnovers, they have multiple weapons who can beat opponents and they trust in Smith and Harbaugh to make the right decisions.
And most importantly...
San Francisco Doesn't Need To Win with Flare
Green Bay features one of the best offenses in the game and wins contests thanks to an MVP season from Rodgers.
When you compare the San Francisco offense with Green Bay's, it isn't really a contest, because the Packers offense is just so explosive.
And perhaps this line of thinking would be right, if San Francisco was built to win like Green Bay is.
Green Bay wins games with offensive flare and a quarterback at the very top of his game. San Francisco does not win with offensive shootouts.
They win with short passes, a sharp running game and kicker in David Akers who has sunk 23-of-25 field-goal attempts.
This is perhaps the biggest reason why San Francisco isn't considered in Green Bay's league. They aren't exciting to watch and they don't win with breathtaking plays. They are built to win grudge matches, beating opponents with dominant defense and a complete team offense.
The results are not often pretty, but the 49ers get the job done.
To quote Smith, "All that matters is the 'W.' We're not into the style points or anything like that."
San Francisco Is Overcoming the Most Adversity
“Success isn't how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started."
If anything, this proverb captures completely why San Francisco is the league's top team.
San Francisco has overcome some huge obstacles on their way to their 8-1 record.
The NFL lockout was supposed to doom rookie head coaches. Jim Harbaugh is 8-1 while the league's six other rookie coaches (Carolina, Minnesota, Tennessee, Cleveland, Dallas, Oakland) are a combined 22-31.
Alex Smith was dismissed by fans seasons ago and his return in 2011 was never supposed to happen. Now he's quietly one of the more consistent quarterbacks in the league with 11 touchdowns, a 95.8 passer rating and just four turnovers.
Josh Morgan, who had been the 49ers' leading receiver, went down with a ankle break in Week 5. Despite losing him and lacking a true No. 1 receiver, San Francisco's offense is still scoring enough to win.
And when Frank Gore was injured during Week 10's game against the Giants, San Francisco relied on their passing game and still beat New York 27-20 without one of the league's best rushers
Considering San Francisco was expected by their own fans and media to be in the hunt for Andrew Luck, the difference between expectation and reality is simply staggering.
The common thinking seems to be that "San Francisco is good, but they have to prove themselves before they can be the best."
Eventually this conception has to go away. The 49ers have proven week in and week out that they are for real, and it's time for NFL fans to start taking them seriously. Not just “good team” seriously, but “great team” seriously.
Victory in Cincinnati. Comeback in Philadelphia. Blowout against Tampa Bay. Comeback in Detroit. Crunch-time win against New York.
What more do the 49ers have to do before they go from "good" to "contenders"? Because that is where the 49ers' season is heading.
If they can't overcome the Packers at the top of the NFL hill without playing them, then this argument will have to wait until one of the teams loses, or they play in the NFC Championship.
But if San Francisco hadn't blown their fourth-quarter lead against Dallas in Week 2, they'd be 9-0 with the same unbeaten record as Green Bay.
If you matched up the Cowboys and the 49ers again today, would San Francisco lose again? This isn't even close to the same 49ers squad all those eight weeks ago.
When you look at their schedule and consider where they started, San Francisco should be in the discussion for the NFL's top spot.
Any NFL fan should be cheering for a 49ers/Packers matchup in the playoffs. It would truly be one for the ages. And the 49ers would have a decent shot of winning.