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Are the 49ers a real contender this season? We debate

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Let’s discuss whether you should buy into the 49ers yet or not. And Jimmy G’s handsomeness, which is not up for debate.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Two undefeated teams remain in the 2019 NFL season. One is the New England Patriots, because of course it is. The other is an NFC West team, which is no surprise.

But it’s the 49ers, which is.

San Francisco is 4-0, with its most recent win — an absolute dismantling of the Browns that reduced Baker Mayfield to a smoldering crater — sending a message in a national showcase game. The Niners stand atop the NFC and have only played one game they haven’t won by at least two touchdowns. Only one team in the league (Baltimore) is scoring more points per game. Only one team in the league (New England) is allowing fewer yards per game.

Despite all that, only three of our nine non-canine experts picked San Francisco to beat the 3-2 Rams in Week 6.

The first five weeks of the season have paved San Francisco’s path back to the postseason; a trip that would mark the team’s first winning record since 2013. There are still potholes left to navigate along the way. Four games against Los Angeles and Seattle loom on the schedule, as do showdowns with Green Bay and New Orleans. Will the 49ers pass those tests? Will they shrink back to their post-Jim Harbaugh stasis?

Let’s talk it out.

Why should we believe in the Niners?

Christian D’Andrea: The schedule has been soft, sure, but San Francisco hasn’t just been beating opponents — it’s been demoralizing them. The Niners held Tampa to 17 points in the season opener. The Rams allowed that same team to hang 55 (FIFTY-FIVE!) on them at home three weeks later. Nine of the 49ers’ 60 tackles against an awful Bengals team came behind the line of scrimmage. Mayfield averaged 0.45 adjusted yards per pass against them in Week 5.

That’s no murderers row of opponents — even if the Browns shouldn’t be nearly as toothless with Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, and Nick Chubb as they have been — but it’s been encouraging to see the Niners’ highest-profile addition roar to life. Nick Bosa has been good as advertised as a pass rusher in his debut season (three sacks, nine QB hits). Pricey offseason acquisitions Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander have each made important contributions from the second level. Former first-round picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are each playing at Pro Bowl levels.

That’s a lot of talent, and we haven’t even gotten to the offense yet! Three different tailbacks have averaged at least 5.5 yards per carry to start the year. Jimmy Garoppolo has rebounded nicely from last year’s torn ACL. The receiving corps is, uh, fine. That’s enough firepower to roll to victory when this defense does its job, and that’s enough to be a legitimate contender in a disheveled NFC.

Adam Stites: If you get down to the bread and butter of what has historically made for a good football team, it’s been about winning at the line of scrimmage. You can try your best to scheme around it, but if one team is blasting the other off the ball, that’s usually too much to handle.

The 49ers are good because they’re winning in the trenches on both offense and defense. It’s as simple as that.

Injuries could take their toll on the offensive line, but at the moment, no team averages more rushing yards per game and the 49ers’ collective 5.2 yards per rushing attempt is sixth-best in the NFL. That doesn’t even compare to the absolutely stacked San Francisco defensive line, though.

DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, and Ronald Blair are a terrifying group up front. The 49ers haven’t allowed a single rushing touchdown, and they’re top five in every major defensive statistical category.

That’s not fluky. The 49ers have just been bigger, badder, and stronger than their opponents and that has staying power.

James Brady: My colleagues have touched on some of the reasons the 49ers have been good — from Kyle Shanahan’s varied and unpredictable offense to a pass rush that has been absolutely stifling for the first time since Aldon Smith was an up-and-comer. But they’ve overlooked one crucial stat that really shouldn’t be overlooked.

Handsomeness.

San Francisco 49ers v Cincinnati Bengals
Handsome
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Garoppolo is the most handsome man on this entire planet Earth, and opposing defenses don’t know what to do with it. It’s hard to gameplan when you know at least one defender on the field is going to be awestruck by his chiseled features and relentless likability. It’s the classic “charm” effect in video games: disarm your opponent with downright glamor.

In reality, there are so many things to like about what the 49ers are doing, and the most important part outside of football’s basics — winning in the trenches, etc — is that none of it feels like a gimmick. Teams will surely adjust to Shanahan’s offense, but the 49ers have the look of a team that can adjust themselves, as well.

Why shouldn’t we believe in the Niners?

D’Andrea: Their starting quarterback has never played more than six games in a season, and San Francisco is currently without either of its starting tackles. Mike McGlinchey will miss four to six weeks with a knee injury, while Joe Staley’s been out since Week 2 with a broken fibula.

Aside from the injury risk, the Niners are much worse when Garoppolo has to navigate his way through a rapidly collapsing pocket. He was sacked on a ridiculous 12.7 percent of his dropbacks before tearing his ACL in 2018. San Francisco went 1-2 in those games while the budding quarterback set career lows in passer rating, adjusted yards per attempt, and completion rate. His strong 2019 has been bolstered by a 3.4 percent sack rate and a long list of quick-hit passes — his 2.45 seconds from snap to throw is the second-lowest figure in the league — but that strategy limits what the San Francisco offense is capable of.

Stites: Injuries can tear down any team, especially when they cut into an area of strength. Staley and McGlinchey are sidelined with injuries and they lost former Browns starting tackle Shon Coleman to injured reserve in the preseason.

Now the 49ers are relying on sixth-round rookie Justin Skule and former AAF player Daniel Brunskill to be the starting tackles against the Rams in Week 6.

That’s not even to mention the loss of fullback Kyle Juszczyk while he recovers from a knee injury. He’s an integral part of the dominant running game, which could easily go dormant now that it’s without so much of the beef that made it good in the first place.

Brady: Aside from alarming handsomeness, the 49ers have plenty of strengths — but not all of those strengths are particularly proven. Richard Sherman is still the only consistent player in their secondary, and it won’t matter how much the pass rush improves if Jimmie Ward gets hurt or Ahkello Witherspoon comes back and plays like he did a year ago. They’ll be in trouble. The 49ers are ahead of schedule, but just a year ago, several starting positions were a major problem and haven’t been solved just yet.

As noted above — the injuries on the offensive line and to Juszczyk are really concerning. Garoppolo himself is a season removed from a torn ACL, and two unproved offensive tackles should have the alarm bells ringing among 49ers fans.

Where do they rank in the NFC West?

D’Andrea: I think the Niners will lose their Week 6 matchup in Los Angeles — the Rams have homefield advantage and a much more desperate need for a win following their two-game losing streak — but I think San Francisco will ultimately finish the year with a better record than the Rams. LA’s defense has raised serious questions about their conference title defense, and Jared Goff’s regression suggests a less prosperous regular season than we’d expected after last year’s breakthrough.

Chasing down Seattle, on the other hand, is a different beast. Russell Wilson has been a football demigod over the first third of the season. San Francisco’s best offense against strong quarterbacks has been to pester them into nothingness with its pass rush. Since that’s been Wilson’s natural state more or less since entering the league, he’s well attuned to not only surviving chaos in the pocket, but using it to his advantage. The Seahawks still have plenty of questions to answer — their resume isn’t that much more impressive than the Niners’, if we’re going by wins — but given Wilson’s ability to stave off a rebuild that’s appeared to be in the works the past three years, I’m not betting against them.

Oh, and San Francisco is better than Arizona. I know this because I have eyes.

Stites: I’m not quite convinced the 49ers are the best in the NFC, as their record suggests. I do, however, think they deserve to be considered the top team in their division right now.

While San Francisco is running the ball down everybody’s throat, the Rams have had some of the worst blocking in the NFL. It’s why the LA offense looks not nearly as scary as it did in 2018 and it’s part of the reason Jared Goff has seven interceptions to go with his seven touchdowns.

The defense hasn’t been great either for the Rams. Even with juggernaut Aaron Donald in the middle of the line, it has struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Seattle looks like the more formidable challenger for the 49ers — mostly because Russell Wilson is playing out of his mind. The Seahawks have their fair share of warts too, though. Outside of Wilson’s tremendous efficiency, everything else about the team is pretty average.

The Seahawks are 18th in yards per rushing attempt, 18th in points allowed, 26th in passing yards allowed, and 14th in yards allowed per rushing attempt. Wilson is a special player, but he’s carrying a pretty unexceptional team.

Give me the bullies to win the division.

Brady: Personally, I think the 49ers have a brighter future than the Rams, though the Seahawks will always be a force as long as Wilson is there (is this a slight against Goff? Perhaps). Right now, both Seattle and Los Angeles have more proven players and coaches to work with, and it’s easy to bet on them.

The remaining schedules of all the teams is where this gets interesting. I can see the 49ers struggling against the Rams and Seahawks, both at home and on the road, but they can easily split both series. The stretch against the Packers, Ravens, and Saints is the most concerning, and could turn into a three-game losing skid if things go wrong.

They are a much better team than the Cardinals, but knowing this roster as well as I do, I can’t put the 49ers above the Seahawks or Rams until we see some more.