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NFL Panic Index 2019: The 49ers suddenly face some must-win games

The 49ers might not get homefield advantage in the playoffs, the Patriots probably regret trading a tight end to the Seahawks, and what is wrong with the Eagles STILL?

49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo glances to the side, superimposed on a blue, yellow, and white background with the words PANIC INDEX
The 49ers were the last team to lose a game in 2019 but might not get a top seed in the playoffs.

The San Francisco 49ers got off to a red-hot 8-0 start in 2019. They were the last team to lose this season when they fell in overtime to the Seahawks in a game that nearly ended in a tie. They dropped to 10-2 in Week 13 following a last-second, 20-17 loss to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. That normally wouldn’t be something to panic about — there’s no shame in a great team losing on the road to another great team.

However, that result, paired with the Seahawks’ 37-30 win over the Vikings, dropped the 49ers from the No. 1 seed in the NFC down to No. 5 spot.

That’s right — Kyle Shanahan’s team has only lost twice, to teams that boast a .833 winning percentage, by six total points. Two field goals separate the 49ers from an undefeated record and the top seed. That’s the difference between getting a first-round bye and homefield advantage to playing a wild card game on the road.

The bad news continues for San Francisco when you look at its remaining schedule. Here’s who the 49ers have left to play:

  • Week 14: at New Orleans (10-2)
  • Week 15: vs. Atlanta (3-9)
  • Week 16: vs. LA Rams ( 7-5)
  • Week 17: at Seattle (10-2)

The 49ers have already taken down the Rams once, and they should beat the Falcons, though Atlanta has shown some flashes of high-level play in the back half of the season.

Their seeding hopes come down to the other two games. For the Niners to clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs, the matchups against the current top two seeds in the NFC— the Saints and Seahawks — are must-wins. How hard will that be? According to FiveThirtyEight, the 49ers have a 36 percent chance of getting a first-round bye. Had the Seahawks lost to the Vikings on Monday night, that number would have been 62 percent.

The 49ers’ other hope at winning the NFC West is if the Seahawks start stumbling. Seattle has winnable games against the Rams, Panthers, and Cardinals, all of whom the 49ers beat this season as well.

There’s another reason securing a first-round bye is important. Injuries are a big concern for the 49ers. They’ve been fairly banged up this season, at times losing both starting offensive tackles, their top two running backs, their kicker, and their best run stuffer. Even now, Richard Sherman — still one of the best cornerbacks in the league — and Jaquiski Tartt are dealing with health concerns. Having to play an extra game in the Wild Card Round could be devastating.

Panic index: It may seem like the 49ers are getting the short end of the stick here. They’re a great team that happened to get great the same year the NFC became extremely top-heavy.

But if the 49ers do end up in the No. 5 seed in the NFC, there is a silver lining. They will likely draw a mediocre NFC East team (hi, Cowboys) and would probably be favored, even on the road. Considering the two teams the 49ers have lost to and how close each game was, they’ll be ready to play any team, anywhere.

Jacob Hollister is exactly the target Tom Brady needs (and he’s a Seahawk now)

The Patriots took special care to craft Hollister into an NFL tight end. The former Nevada quarterback switched positions relatively late in his football career, eventually settling in at Wyoming as an All-Mountain West target for Josh Allen. That made him a raw but talented prospect who was scooped up by New England as an undrafted free agent in 2017.

He spent the following two years at the tail end of Bill Belichick’s tight end rotation, making a pair of starts, eight catches, and generally looking like an overmatched young player capable of occasional flashes of capability. That was enough to sour the team’s front office on his NFL future, and Hollister was traded to Seattle for a seventh-round pick during April’s draft.

Hollister’s long road to relevance took a handful of extra turns when he failed to make the Seahawks’ 53-man roster to start the season. For the first six weeks of the season, he languished on the practice squad, where he could have been plucked by any team in the league — including the Pats.

Rather than re-sign the pass catcher in September, Belichick rolled on with his carousel of veteran tight ends in post-Gronk New England. That left players like Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, Lance Kendricks, Stephen Anderson, Andrew Beck, Eric Saubert, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Eric Tomlinson to compete for snaps through the offseason and into 2019.

Hollister has been better than any of them. Over his last four games (only one of which he started), the third-year tight end has put up numbers that equate to an 80-catch, 12 touchdown 16-game season. His 25 receptions this fall are as many as the Patriots’ current tight ends — Watson, LaCosse, and Izzo — have in 2019 combined. Those three have one touchdown between them.

Hollister’s impact in Seattle has grown as his bond with Russell Wilson has gotten stronger. He’s been an invaluable presence when his quarterback needs someone to bail him out of trouble. That’s a weapon Tom Brady has sorely lacked in a year when he’s put up some of the least efficient stats of his career and has looked more and more his age each game.

Panic index: Brady spent his Sunday night telling his receivers and tight end to be more explosive when it became clear they couldn’t get open against the Texans’ secondary. Maybe Hollister never would have developed into more than a complementary piece in New England, but the Pats could certainly use a player like the one who’s stepped inside Wilson’s circle of trust.

The Dolphins could win themselves straight out of a premium draft pick

Tanking was going exactly according to plan for the Dolphins. They lost by at least 20 points in their first four games of the season, making it perfectly clear this team wasn’t going to come anywhere close to the playoffs in 2019. The losing streak stretched to seven, and then something funny happened: Miami started winning.

The Dolphins beat the Jets and the Colts in back-to-back weeks, then added a third win in Week 13 by defeating the Eagles. It’s a fun turn of events for a team that is playing hard under first-year head coach Brian Flores. Low expectations means they’re unencumbered and willing to try goofy things like allowing their punter to throw a touchdown to their kicker.

The problem is these wins could come back to haunt the Dolphins. They’re still No. 4 in the draft order for now, but they face the Jets, Giants, and Bengals in the next three weeks. They could easily get to five or six wins before the season is over.

Winning is fun, but the Dolphins aren’t going to sniff the Super Bowl any time soon unless there’s a serious influx of talent. By finishing the 2019 season strong, Miami is hurting its chances in 2020 and beyond.

Panic index: Even if the Dolphins wind up with five or six wins, that’s still likely the back half of the top 10. While that presumably means Miami won’t get to draft the best quarterback of the class, it’s still a great opportunity to get a lot better. The team’s other two first-round picks and two second-round picks — acquired in trades that shipped out players like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Laremy Tunsil, and Kenny Stills — soften the blow as well.

The object of tanking was to clear cap space and pick up draft picks. The Dolphins have done that, and they’ll still have plenty of chances to improve their roster even if they win another game or two or three.

Shouldn’t the Eagles be past this kind of thing by now?

It really feels like the Philadelphia Eagles should be better than they are. Just when it seemed like they turned a corner after beating the Bills and Bears, they followed it up with a three-game skid.

It’s not strange that they lost to the Patriots out of the bye week and then fell to the Seahawks, even though both games were right there for the taking. But losing to the Dolphins? In a week when they could’ve vaulted into a tie for the NFC East lead?

Yes, Philadelphia can still overtake the Cowboys in the division standings. After Week 13’s performance against Miami, how could anybody be even remotely confident in the Eagles —even with winnable games against the Giants (x2), Cowboys, and Washington?

Never mind that Eagles coach Doug Pederson called the Dolphins a good team. What he said about his own team was worse: He gave them as scathing a review as we’ve heard from a head coach.

“I’m disgusted, I’m mad, I’m angry, and I’m probably more so mad at myself,” Pederson said. “They wanted this a little more than we did and they made the plays and we didn’t.”

Nobody likes it when someone involved in football — from fans to players to coaches — says another team “wanted it more.” What does that say about Pederson and his team if the tanking Dolphins want to win more than his team, which is in the middle of a playoff race?

The state of the Eagles is pretty depressing, especially since they are only two years removed from a Super Bowl and were a popular pick to go the distance again this year.

Panic index: More damning than the record, those statements from Pederson should have Eagles fans worrying not just about the immediate future of the team, but the long-term as well.

Pederson went on to say he believes his team can win out and make the playoffs at 9-7. That seems like a consolation prize after the expectations many had in Carson Wentz and this team as a whole. Philadelphia should be past this kind of dysfunction. Instead, it’s out here giving up 14-point leads to the Dolphins.