NFL Analysis


8 min read

San Francisco 49ers Are NFL's Best Team

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (13) celebrates as he walks off the field after a victory against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers are the best team in football. Full stop. 

That may have been true even before Sunday. The 49ers were an 8-3 team heading into this week, and all three of their losses were close games defined by mistakes they don't typically make. They were a strong team on both sides of the ball that hit a little midseason rut but worked it out after the bye week — a perfectly normal journey for Super Bowl-bound teams year after year. 

Sunday's 42-19 shellacking of the previously 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles left no doubt, not even a shadow of one, that the 49ers stand alone at the top.

Beating the Best

After a slow start from both teams, the 49ers came alive in the second quarter. All but one 49ers drive from the second quarter and on resulted in a touchdown. They found the end zone on six straight possessions. The only exception was the clock-killing drive at the end of the game. I'm sure they could have scored on that drive if they wanted to, but it would have been plain rude to score again at that point.

The defense was up to snuff as well. Philadelphia's overwhelming offense could not get anything going on the ground all day (save for the Brotherly Shove, of course). The game fell on Jalen Hurts' shoulders, and the 49ers' pass rush made sure not to give him any chances to turn the game into a real shootout. 

The Eagles scored 13 points in the final three quarters, a number they could have doubled and still fallen well short of the win.

San Francisco's win over Philadelphia was just a microcosm of what it has been building toward this season. The mini-losing streak briefly knocked them off the podium in the race to be the best team in the NFL, but they have always had the potential to be a juggernaut. They were early in the season and have been since their bye in Week 9. This is just what the 49ers look like when everyone is healthy and firing on all cylinders. 

How the Offense Functions

While both sides of the ball can be dominant, Kyle Shanahan's offense puts this team over the top. They are a machine. No offense in the league is as complete, explosive, efficient, or chock-full of legitimate All-Pro talent. The 49ers offense has all the tools to beat you every which way and a coach who knows all the button combos to smash. 

Prior to Sunday Night Football, Week 13

The rushing offense sets the floor. That's always been true for Shanahan's offenses, even dating back to Mike Shanahan in the 1990s. More than most other teams, the 49ers commit to the run game to pick up yards and keep the passing offense in cushy situations. Second-and-5 is a lot nicer than second-and-8, just as third-and-2 is a heck of a lot easier to convert than third-and-7. The offense is built and called with that principle in mind. 

Through 13 weeks, the 49ers rank third in rushing success rate and eighth in EPA per rush, per TruMedia. That perfectly captures the purpose of their run game. You get explosive plays here and there, especially with Christian McCaffrey and with Deebo Samuel's gadget touches, but the point is efficiency. It's about staying on schedule, and the 49ers do that about as well as anybody. 

Passing Game Superpowers

But, of course, this passing offense puts their ceiling on the moon. Every single 49ers pass-catcher is a weapon. They all have unique little superpowers, whether that's McCaffrey on option routes, Samuel streaking across the field on crossing routes, George Kittle commanding the middle of the field, or Brandon Aiyuk's crisp and clean route-running. 

What they all have in common, though, is their devastating ability to make a play with the ball in their hands. None of these guys are catch-and-go-down possession receivers. Even role-player Jauan Jennings broke a few tackles on his way to the end zone against the Eagles. 

In Their Own World

To this point in the season, the 49ers have averaged 6.63 yards after the catch per reception, according to TruMedia. Nobody else is within even a half-yard of them. The difference between the 49ers and the Dolphins (6.06) is the difference between the Dolphins and the seventh-place Houston Texans (5.52). There's just nobody else in their stratosphere when things are rolling. 

It's almost more impressive when you break it down individually. 

Samuel ranks first among wide receivers when narrowing it down to players with at least 50 targets. Kittle ranks second among tight ends. McCaffrey ranks fifth among backs, sandwiched between Bijan Robinson and Alvin Kamara. 

Even Aiyuk, who ranks a little lower at 21st among receivers, comes with the context of where his passes are caught. Aiyuk's 4.86 YAC per reception isn't much higher than the NFL average 4.33, but his average depth of target is also 14.25 yards. He's the only player in the league with an above-average YAC per reception figure and an ADoT over 14 yards. That's not a combo you're supposed to be able to pull off. 

Overcoming the Uncertainty

From top to bottom, run or pass, this 49ers offense can run up the scoreboard on anyone.

That was to be expected with the offense. All of the pieces from last season were back in the building. Brock Purdy got another offseason to settle into the starting job. There was never a world where the 49ers would not be a top-five offense. 

Defensively, the 49ers did not come into the year with that kind of certainty. Wizard-like defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans left for the Houston Texans' head coaching gig, safety Jimmie Ward followed him there in free agency, and a slew of other starters left in free agency. The core of Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and Arik Armstead remained intact, but it was worth wondering whether that was enough to get them back to elite status. 

It wasn't enough at the beginning of the season. Losing a handful of starters and key role players, particularly up front, forced the defense to take a step back. The pass rush was not as fierce as in years past, and the trickle-down effects of that took a once-elite defense back down to regular old good. How tragic, I know. 

Supplementing the Defense

Like any intelligent team, the 49ers went out of their way to fix that in a hurry. San Francisco started by trading for Randy Gregory from the Denver Broncos to bolster their pass-rush with a role player, which was a solid move. Then the 49ers doubled down at the trade deadline, sending a third-round pick to the Washington Commanders for a re-emerging Chase Young

Suffice it to say, it's made all the difference. 

The 49ers now sit sixth in pressure rate on the season, slotting between the Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers. Specifically, on third down, the 49ers jump up to second. Only the vaunted Dallas Cowboys front outpaces them in getting pressure on third down. 

That pass rush has been the driving force for their success on defense. Much like their run game on the other side of the ball, it sets the table for the rest of the defense to fall into place.

CB Charvarius Ward can get away with being a bully on the outside. LB Fred Warner has more freedom to play the quarterback's eyes in coverage. The safeties don't have to worry as much about playing deep and sitting on top of routes, knowing the pass rush will get home and force the ball out in a hurry. Everyone gets to play fast, free football because of what the pass rush affords them. 

The Road Ahead

With both sides of the ball humming like this, the 49ers are a juggernaut in a league that doesn't have many clearcut superpowers. The Eagles and Cowboys might be the two other teams closest to that category, and the 49ers have blown out both by a combined 84-29. 

There isn't much in the way of the 49ers and the first seed in the NFC, either. Even with this win, they are still a game back from the Eagles, but their schedule is quite generous. 

The 49ers get the Seahawks in Week 14. In a vacuum, the Seahawks are feisty, but the 49ers have their number. Their last four games are against the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Washington Commanders and Los Angeles Rams. It'd be a mighty surprise if anyone but the Ravens even gives them a scare. 

It's scary enough to imagine this 49ers team in the postseason. Giving them the first seed and home-field advantage all the way through would be the cherry on top. And the more the 49ers play since turning the ship around after their bye, the more that world seems likely.