Are the 9-1 49ers Legit Super Bowl Contenders? We're About to Find Out

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 21, 2019

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 17: Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates after a win against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Congratulations, 49ers! You're guaranteed your first winning season since 2013. You have a 96.9 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, per Football Outsiders. You've even won over the skeptics who assumed you were a schedule-assisted mirage early in the season. Most of them, anyway.

Now the real work starts.

The 49ers face the Packers, Ravens and Saints over the next three weeks—three teams with a combined 24-6 record. It may be the toughest three-game regular-season stretch a team has ever faced, and it comes just after the 49ers have started to look vulnerable, with an overtime loss to the Seahawks two weeks ago and a narrowly averted disaster against the Cardinals this past Sunday.

The brutal upcoming schedule will answer the question that remaining 49ers skeptics are still lingering on: Just how good is this team?

Based on our analysis, 49ers fans may not like the answer.

          

What the schedule says

We know what the skeptics are thinking: "The 49ers haven't played anyone." Frankly, that's true. 

The 49ers have had the NFL's third-easiest schedule so far this season, per Football Outsiders. They now face the second-hardest future schedule, trailing only the Rams (Ravens, Seahawks, Cowboys, 49ers, pesky Cardinals twice). The 49ers' upcoming three-game stretch is almost unprecedented, as no team has ever faced three straight regular-season opponents with winning percentages of .800 or better this late in the season, per ESPN's Nick Wagoner. As of now, the Packers, Ravens and Saints have winning percentages of precisely .800.

The 49ers' statement wins so far this season came against the Steelers in Mason Rudolph's first start, a Rams team that looks nothing like last year's conference champions, and the Panthers, who were at the start of a nosedive behind backup quarterback Kyle Allen when the 49ers faced them. Their past opponents currently have a combined record of 38-62-2. The Seahawks (in Santa Clara) have been their only championship-caliber test so far this season, and they failed (though it sure was close). 

But before you write off the 49ers as daisy-stomping frauds, consider this: Few of the top contenders have "played anybody" this year. The Patriots have faced the league's second-easiest schedule, per Football Outsiders. The Cowboys and Ravens have faced the fourth- and fifth-easiest, respectively. The Bills have faced the easiest, which is why they're a likely playoff team despite an offense that looks like your great uncle picked up a Madden controller for the first time.

The NFL's bad teams are so bad this year that all the top teams can do is unapologetically whomp them. And the 49ers have whomped them as hard or harder than any of the other contenders. 

To determine if they can survive a Packers-Ravens-Saints gauntlet, we need to dig deeper into the data and tease out some of that soft-schedule fluff.

         

What the stats say

According to the numbers, the 49ers are little more than an outstanding defensive line with an ordinary team attached. Here's where they rank in various categories according to Football Outsiders DVOA, which analyzes every play of the season and, yes, adjusts for opponent strength:

Overall: 5th (behind the Patriots, Ravens, Chiefs and Cowboys)

Passing offense: 13th

Rushing offense: 21st

Passing defense: 2nd (the Patriots are 1st)

Rushing defense: 19th

Special teams: 16th

The 49ers' passing defense must be really, really good to keep them among the NFL's elite teams despite middle-of-the-pack rankings just about everywhere else. And it is.

But a deeper dive into the passing defense (using some of the Football Outsiders Premium data) reveals that the 49ers are essentially just doing one related set of things exceptionally well:

Adjusted sack rate: 1st

Defending No. 1 WRs: 14th

Defending No. 2 WRs: 13th

Defending No. 3 WRs: 12th

Defending TEs: 1st

Defending RBs as receivers: 1st

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 07: Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates with Arik Armstead #91 and Dee Ford #55 after sacking quarterback Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns at Levi's Stadium on October 07, 2019 in Santa Clara, Cal
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The defensive line of Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford and some quality backups not only generates sacks but helps take opposing tight ends and running backs out of the game by turning them into blockers or desperate "throwaway" targets. The 49ers rank first at stopping short-yardage runs, which is also the defensive line's department, and they first against short passes (14th against deep passes), another by-product of neutralizing backs and tight ends.

Everyone can agree that the 49ers defensive line is awesome. But is the rest of the team all that ordinary? What about:

George Kittle? He's an All-Pro tight end, but his injury status remains uncertain. And even when Kittle is healthy, one great playmaker doesn't make a team or offense great. You wouldn't argue that the Falcons were a Super Bowl team because of Julio Jones, would you?

The running game? The 49ers average 149 rushing yards per game this season but have averaged just 74 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per rush over the past three games. Their quintet of running backs and fullbacks are good, but they're not the second coming of the Million Dollar Backfield they appeared to be when running for 200-plus yards per game in blowouts against the weak Bengals, Browns and Panthers run defenses. 

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 17: Richard Sherman #25 of the San Francisco 49ers fires the team up on the field prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers defeated the Cardinal
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

The secondary? You saw the breakdowns above. Richard Sherman remains a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback, despite a pass interference spree against the Cardinals. The rest of the secondary looks just fine when opposing quarterbacks are running for their lives.

The offensive line? They've played pretty well through multiple injuries at tackle, with an emphasis on "pretty well." 

Jimmy Garoppolo? The quarterback gets his own segment, of course.

               

How the quarterback stacks up

Here are Garoppolo's rankings this season, according to a handful of traditional and high-tech stats. As you can see, he ranks among the middle tier of quarterbacks, no matter who is doing the ranking and what goes into the formula. 

Quarterback rating: 13th

Adjusted net yards per attempt (Pro Football Reference): 12th

DYAR (Football Outsiders): 15th

QBR (ESPN): 13th

Arguing that Garoppolo is significantly better or worse than a league-average starter can lead to circular reasoning and cherry-picked data. He is a dink-and-dunker who relies on yards after the catch from playmakers like Kittle and Deebo Samuel, but the same can be said of Drew BreesGaroppolo looked bad late in the Seahawks game (throwing some would-be interceptions off the hands of some Seahawks defenders), but every quarterback in the NFL has a few bad quarters or halves on their resume this year. 

Garoppolo looks better in a clean pocket than when pressured, better against weak defenses than strong ones and better in favorable down-and-distance situations than on 3rd-and-15, just like every other quarterback on earth. You can construct just about any good-or-bad argument you wish about Garoppolo after his 20 career starts, and it will contain at least a morsel of truth.

Garoppolo, like everything else about the 49ers except the defensive line, has proved after 10 games that he is good enough but hasn't shown much evidence that he is great. The next three weeks will help determine his playoff worthiness. Just in time for the playoffs.

             

So how good are the 49ers?

Three weeks ago, the 49ers looked like one of the greatest teams of all time, with a historic defense that ranked above the 2015 Broncos and Seattle's Legion of Boom and a running game on pace for the highest yardage total in over a decade. 

Since then, the Seahawks and Cardinals have shut down their running game and poked a hole or two in their defense, and we have learned more about just how weak their first-half competition was.

The 49ers now look like just another strong playoff contender, but one without the postseason pedigree of the teams it must beat to reach the Super Bowl. 


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Lots of teams turn a soft early schedule into a deep playoff run; that's pretty much the Patriots' brand. And the 2007 Giants taught us that a team with a devastating pass rush and not much else can achieve what appears to be impossible. The 49ers may only have one true strength, but they also lack any major weaknesses. And they're deep at just about every position, which is crucial at this point in the season.

But overall, the 49ers look much more like a wild-card-caliber team that got a two-month sugar rush from a cupcake schedule than a Super Bowl team right now.

They'll get to prove that assessment wrong over and over again for the next two months: first against the Packers, Ravens and Saints, then against the Seahawks and Rams again, then against some of those same teams in the postseason. 

That's going to be exponentially harder than beating the Bengals and some backup quarterbacks.

So, congratulations on getting this far, 49ers. It truly is an accomplishment. But you haven't won anything meaningful yet. 

             

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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