Despite falling in Super Bowl LIV to the Kansas City Chiefs, the San Francisco 49ers are still the kings of the NFC.
However, as the 2020 season approaches (we hope) and we consider NFL picks for the new campaign, is San Francisco’s grasp on the NFC a stranglehold?
Before we take a look at the most likely contenders to knock off the 49ers off of their lofty NFC perch, consider the following.
Due to COVID-19 and the inability to bring in normal full house crowds, a lack of home-field advantage and crowd restrictions could make things a lot more difficult for some of the teams below.
Alas, here are the teams that should keep 49ers fans up at night that could supplant San Francisco at the top of the conference.
Seattle Seahawks – It doesn’t get much closer than the division title and homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs being decided by just a few inches in Week 17 between these division foes last season. While the Seahawks may not be the most loaded in terms of talent in the NFC, no team knows the 49ers better.
Last season, their two games were settled by a total of eight points with one contest going to overtime and the other coming down to a decisive play with just seconds left.
The Seahawks traded seemingly the entire Pike Place Market (or two first round picks) in Seattle for New York Jets safety Jamal Adams, who gives them their most formidable presence at that position since Kam Chancellor roamed the secondary for the Legion of Boom in the mid-2010s.
By finishing 22nd and 26th in points allowed and yards allowed respectively, last season marked the worst statistical year for a Seahawks defense since head coach Pete Carroll’s first year in 2010. While the defense isn’t nearly as consistent as it has been in the past, it should improve with Adams in the secondary.
Seattle’s fall defensively has coincided with quarterback Russell Wilson’s rise to power around the league. The 31-year-old quarterback will enter his ninth season with a respectable fleet of weapons including receivers Tyler Lockett and muscleman D.K. Metcalf, who enters his second year. Meanwhile, their rushing attack (when healthy) with Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny can be a bruising force.
Ultimately, the Seahawks will go as far as Wilson’s shoulders can carry them but eventually, he will need some more help to get Seattle back to the Super Bowl.
New Orleans Saints – After winning Super Bowl XLIV back in January 2010, the Saints spent the back end of the decade as “next year’s Super Bowl champions.” The Saints managed to let Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins wander into the Superdome in the past two postseasons and beat them in overtime.
Yet, New Orleans is still on Drew Brees/Sean Payton time. In other words, they are a Super Bowl contender until that duo splits. Just ask the 49ers, who went toe-to-toe with Brees and the Saints while escaping the Big Easy with a critical 48-46 win back in December.
Why New Orleans?
The Saints have fielded a top 10 offense (total yards) each year since Payton’s arrival in 2006. Yet, the difference between the Saints being a contender and missing the playoffs has been their defense.
Since ’06, the Saints have reached the playoffs eight times. When the New Orleans defense finished lower than 20th in points allowed, they’ve missed the playoffs each occasion (six times). When they finished 20th or better, they’ve reached the playoffs each time.
Translation: While their defense (and Brees) have come up short in the postseason, much of another opportunity at a Super Bowl lies with the Saints defense. If they don’t play well, the playoffs and success once there will be tough to come by.
Paired with a competitive defense and offensive stars like Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, it’s hard to imagine New Orleans not reaching the playoffs…and perhaps in being a thorn in the Niners side in late-January.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Well, well, well. Guess who is coming to dinner to eat at the NFC table? Six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March after 19 years with the New England Patriots. It should be quite the upgrade from the NFL’s first-ever Mr. 30/30 Jameis Winston.
The 43-year-old Brady joins what is one of the NFL’s best divisions on paper in the NFC South. Brees, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, and new Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater fill out what is shaping up to be an excellent division.
The questions regarding Tampa stem around their defensive prowess and ability to protect their new quarterback. While Tampa’s offense got plenty of attention, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles led a vastly improved unit in 2019 that actually finished 5th in DVOA according to Football Outsiders despite being put in numerous precarious situations thanks to Winston’s 35 turnovers.
If Tampa is ready to hop into contender mode all of a sudden, their offensive line must get better as well. The Bucs allowed 47 sacks last season – ranking 22nd in the league. That kind of sack rate will not fly versus Hot Boyz University in San Francisco.
Following Super Bowl LIV, some wondered if Brady would have either held onto a 10-point second half lead or finished the comeback that 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo could not against the Chiefs last February.
Alas, Brady is a difference maker and armed with a far better offensive supporting cast than what he left in New England. If he doesn’t decline (which is a medium-sized IF considering he is reaching unchartered territory for performance at his age), Brady should put up points in Tampa.
If Tampa is as good as they were last season on offense (minus the Jameis turnovers) mixed a promising defense, they definitely have a chance to become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles won Super Bowl LII at the end of the 2017 season. Their record since Super Bowl LII (including postseason) is a slightly above average 19-16. That doesn’t exactly wake up the echoes for a franchise that thought it might be anointed as the next team of the decade.
Nonetheless, the Eagles are here instead of Green Bay or Dallas for a few reasons. The Packers just drafted the presumed heir apparent for Aaron Rodgers in May’s draft – Jordan Love. That follows a 13-3 season where they clearly played above their heads under rookie head coach Matt LaFleur.
Since 2000, only the ’02-’03 Eagles and ’11 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game and went back to the title game in the following season. Regression for the Packers seems inevitable.
The Cowboys could be a problem in the NFC for the 49ers but need to clean up a few issues including some defensive holes in their secondary to have a chance.
That leaves the Eagles.
First, let’s address the sizeable elephant in the room. Yes, quarterback Carson Wentz has an injury history. It’s important to note though that he has only missed eight regular season games. The problem is he has missed some pretty important games including the entire ’17 and ’18 postseason runs; and recently, most of last season’s wild card loss to the Seahawks.
Wentz proved in the last four games of the season that he can excel while even throwing to practice squad players in high-stake games. While it seems, the Eagles are unsuccessfully trying to re-capture that ’17 magic again, the talent is aplenty on the defensive side of the ball.
They have a stout defense that includes the best defensive tackle in the NFC not named Aaron Donald – perennial Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox. In their final 10 games, the Eagles allowed under 20 points eight times. Unfortunately for Doug Pederson’s crew, their ’19 season was defined by lackluster offensive production at receiver, which – along with Wentz’s injury against Seattle – cost them their season.
They have the type of team that could be annoying to San Francisco – an athletic, playmaking quarterback and a plucky defense that is tough to deal with when they are on.
VERDICT: It will be difficult for the 49ers to navigate the rough NFC waters in 2020 due to these rugged challengers. Garoppolo must continue to improve alongside one of the league’s elite defenses because if NFL history has taught us, climbing to the top of the league is hard…staying there is even harder.
Categories: San Francisco 49ers