As Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells likes to say, you are what your record says. By that measure, the San Francisco 49ers are positively average at 4-4.
But if there’s one NFL team ready to step on the gas in the next nine games, it’s the 49ers, who host the Chargers on Sunday night.
With running back Christian McCaffrey even more familiar with the playbook and extremely versatile receiver Deebo Samuel back on the team after a week out, the 49ers are suddenly one of the most explosive offenses in the league, like the Rams were in their home loss found their NFC West rival two weeks ago.
Yes, the 49ers have already lost four games, but last season they were 3-5 at that point and made it to the NFC Championship game before the Rams edged them down the stretch. This is a San Francisco team that knows how to finish strong.
“The 49ers are the team that I think will end up in the Super Bowl against the winner of the Chiefs-Bills,” said former New Orleans coach Sean Payton, now a Fox analyst.
Payton said he would have picked the 49ers to represent the NFC prior to the McCaffrey trade but is particularly confident after this blockbuster deal.
“What’s unique about Christian going where I love is that he doesn’t have to be who he was in Carolina,” he said. “They overused him there. It’s a bit of a sports car here. It’s not an everyday SUV. …
“He will extend his career there. There he will be much more efficient. We’ve already seen that. And he will be with someone [in coach Kyle Shanahan] who will come up with and develop some unique ideas there.”
Especially the NFC is an interesting place this season. Some of the teams that were already good in recent years are beginning to circle the drain — the Rams, Green Bay, Tampa Bay — while others have had a surprise resurgence.
Pete Carroll is directly in the running for Coach of the Year, with the 6-3 Seahawks winning five of six wins ahead of Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers in Germany. Quarterback Geno Smith has redefined his career and is looking particularly good given Russell Wilson’s performance so far in Denver.
Though the 49ers defeated the Rams again this season like they did last year, they don’t have as tight a grip on the division’s other rivals. For example, San Francisco was overrun by both Seattle and Arizona last season.
On the other side of the country are the Philadelphia Eagles, 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. There are no glaring weaknesses on this team, and quarterback Jalen Hurts’ mobility makes them particularly dangerous.
“I wouldn’t want to play Philly because I think this quarterback is a unique contributor to the running game,” Payton said. “On the outside, the receivers come in, they take the ball away at high speed … and their formula for scoring goals and taking the ball away is a bit like ours in New Orleans in 2009. We took it away at a record course.”
Minnesota have won six in a row, with the Vikings only losing in Week 2 in Philadelphia. Hurts had a phenomenal game in that 24-7 win. Since then, the Vikings have proven they’re an NFC contender, and first-year coach Kevin O’Connell is the latest in a growing line of former Rams assistants finding success with their own teams.
The next two games will be a big test for the Vikings, who play in Buffalo on Sunday before taking on Dallas in Week 11.
The Cowboys are another team vying for position at the top of the NFC, particularly with the way they can pressure the passer. Dallas is sparing with receivers, but linebacker Micah Parsons and running back Ezekiel Elliott are trying to recruit their friend Odell Beckham Jr. to sign with the Cowboys. Beckham, a former member of the Rams, has not played since his knee injury in the Super Bowl.
It’s all part of an increasingly interesting churn that should make the NFC particularly interesting in the second half of the season.
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