As five weeks is usually more than sufficient time to establish the true pecking order in the National Football League, it is now clear that Super Bowl LIV (as opposed to Super Bowl LUV) will feature the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers.
As we suspected.
The Patriots, we needn’t bother with. They never aren’t there, and finishing off the grievously wounded Jay Gruden before a FedEx Field crowd Sunday comprised mostly of their own fans changes nothing. And nobody seems to mind the ease of their schedule (5-18, including Washington, Miami, the New York Jets and Pittsburgh) because the glint from their trophy case makes spotting the small details difficult.
You may express your hatred in the comments section, as is traditional.
The 49ers, on the other hand, have no such predisposition because they have been lousy for much of this century; their cumulative record since 1999 is only four games better than Danny Snyder’s and they’re in year three of a massive rebuild which...
...well, which has them 4-0 in a year in which nobody else but the Patriots is undefeated. This could be called an anomaly when they were, say, 3-0, having barely survived the erratic Tampa Bays, routed the hideous Cincinnatis, and beaten the quarterback-less Pittsburghs despite committing five turnovers. That’s all easily explained by the width of the NFL’s current margin for error, and for the general atrocity of the AFC North.
But after throttling the Cleveland Hype Machine Monday night, 31-3, in game that wasn’t remotely as close as the final score indicated, they have graduated to that most nebulous form of high praise, “in the conversation.” Power rankings, which remain analytics for people who can’t count and don’t intend to start learning now, list them second behind New England, and their opponents, which were usually a good reason to eliminate them as a potential force, is, well, they’re lousy too; San Francisco has beaten teams that are currently a combined 5-15. So you don’t have to look it up, the Belichicks and Shanahans have played the two easiest schedules so far, so run with that if it helps you muscle through your Tuesday.
In other words, at least only on results, they are nearly New England’s equal. Which is, of course, ridiculous.
But they do now have our attention, which, given the time of year and our inability to say, “Well, it’s barely October so let’s just withhold judgment until, say, Halloween,” let alone shut up entirely, is as good as it gets.
The defense, once shambolic, is now excellent from front to back, although that might be the schedule. They force rather than commit turnovers, though that might be the schedule. They have played well three times as well as they have played poorly. They have, small sample size and all, done what the Patriots have done. Including taken advantage of a doughy early schedule. We got it. No more.
Now, nobody in the right mind would suggest the Niners and Pats are equals, which is to say 47 percent of the eligible opinion-makers. But their schedules do toughen up after this, the 49ers’ more so, and nobody thinks the 49ers’ performances won’t level off to some degree, while the Patriots are, hate it or hate it more than that, the Patriots.
But the 49ers are the new flavor in town because their flaws, which include a significant injury per week, have not yet been exposed. They are, like probably 23 other teams, capable of illusory highs and deceptive lows, only they haven’t shown the lows yet. They were atrocious when Kyle Shanahan got to town and largely stayed that way, but, going against type, he went out in Year Three and built a defense rather than indulging in his pet project, which is offense. He is in danger of being tediously overpraised if he isn’t already, but he did think macro instead of micro and has benefited from that level of organizational discipline.
Oh, and Nick Bosa. For his on-field work, his name had to appear here somewhere.
As is always the caveat in the NFL, the 49ers are a strategically-aimed ACL away from competitive irrelevance. But it’s Week Six now, and we have scores of injuries to count before we actually know who is Super Bowl bait and who is not. We’ve got six teams on the high side plus New England, which is its own special category until further notice, and probably eight teams on the Send ‘Em To Canada And Give Us Hamilton And Saskatchewan side. The 49ers would seem to be well positioned in that amorphous blob between the two extremes, at least for now. They are undefeated, they have attitude, and they have Richard Sherman to explain it all to us. No matter the shortcomings of the sample size and the quality of the opponent, that beats having your car repo’d out of your parents’ driveway damned near every time.
Ray Ratto takes brief pains to note that the 49ers are five-point dogs at the Rams Sunday, and if you’re not covering, you’re not trying.