Why it's time to recognize undefeated 49ers as an elite NFL contender

Why it's time to recognize undefeated 49ers as an elite NFL contender

LOS ANGELES -- This was the day the 49ers turned from being a nice underdog story into a legitimate Super Bowl threat.

Seriously? Seriously.

The 49ers, playing without four key starting players, went into the stadium of the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams and turned it into their home -- complete with their own fans bringing the volume.

The 49ers’ defense was relentless and did more than enough to overcome some of the team’s expected offensive shortcomings in an eye-opening 20-7 victory over the Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The 49ers took the field without Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, their starting offensive tackles. Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill filled in nicely.

They used a combination of different offensive personnel groupings, including extended runs for reserve tight ends Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo to compensate for the loss of do-everything fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was playing at a high level when he was lost for approximately a month with a foot sprain. But backup Emmanuel Moseley has stepped in, and the pass defense has not missed a beat.

Are the 49ers elite? At this point -- nearly one-third into the season -- there can be only one correct answer.

It is fair to recognize the 49ers as one of the top teams in the NFL through five games. After all, the 49ers (5-0) and the New England Patriots (6-0) are the league’s only unbeaten squads.

But coach Kyle Shanahan, perhaps, is sending a message to his team that he believes the 49ers are capable of much more. When he was asked if “elite” is an apt description of the 49ers, he was not ready to go there.

“No, [I’m] not going to ever used that word. Good trick,” Shanahan said with a laugh.

“But I’m very happy with how we played. We’re 5-0, which is a great thing. But we’re not playing our best ball. We could do a lot of things better than that.”

Even with a dominating defensive performance that limited quarterback Jared Goff and the high-powered Rams offense to a meager 56 yards of net passing, the players on defense believe they can get better. There's also little doubt that the 49ers can tighten things up on offense and special teams, too.

So, can it be said now? Are the 49ers for real?

“We would like to say,” 49ers defensive end Dee Ford said. “But we still understand we got things to work on. The record shows right now, but we got to keep going. We got a lot of good teams ahead. The challenge is going to be stiff every week, and we got to answer it.”

“We’re just getting started," linebacker Fred Warner said. "We’re 5-0, which is great, but we have a long season ahead of us. It’ll take us one week at a time.”

The 49ers now hold a three-game lead in the loss column over the Rams, who fall to 3-3.

The Rams have lost back-to-back games to NFC West opponents, falling in Week 5 at the Seattle Seahawks. The Rams now face an uphill climb to get back in the division race and cannot afford too many more stumbles to remain in the thick of the NFC wild-card race.

There was no denying the importance of this game for the 49ers, especially after the Rams handled them quite easily in their two meetings last season en route to their second straight division title in Sean McVay’s first two seasons as coach.

“L.A. has gotten after us the last couple of years,” defensive lineman Solomon Thomas said. “It was a game for us to come out and show we’re for real.”

[RELATED: Grading 49ers in their win over Rams]

Said rookie defensive end Nick Bosa: “It was definitely emotional, but we definitely expect to win every game we play now. We have that confidence offensively and defensively. It’s only up from here.”

Despite their five-game win streak to open the season and the temptation to get full of themselves, defensive end Arik Armstead said he plans to stick with the same approach that has made the 49ers successful up this point.

“My mindset is to take it week by week,” he said.

How Emmanuel Sanders trade helped 49ers, likely hurt Patriots' offense


How Emmanuel Sanders trade helped 49ers, likely hurt Patriots' offense

Two of the NFL’s best teams in 2019, the New England Patriots and 49ers, both faced a similar problem as the trade deadline approached.

The seemingly well-oiled machines had identified an identical issue: A lack of consistent play from the wide receivers.

While both teams attempted to rectify their passing-game issues at the deadline -- the 49ers dealt a pair of draft picks to the Denver Broncos for Emmanuel Sanders while the Patriots used a second-round pick to acquire Mohamed Sanu from Atlanta -- the results weren’t exactly analogous for the two contenders.

Sanders just completed a dominant performance in New Orleans, catching seven passes for 157 yards and a touchdown -- he threw for one, too. Meanwhile, Sanu caught just one pass for 13 yards in Week 14 as New England suffered a home loss at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Since Oct. 22, the day both players found their new homes, Sanders is averaging 10.44 receiving yards per target. Sanu? The former Falcon is averaging just 4.66 yards per target.

The 49ers reportedly balked at the price Atlanta wanted for Sanu, but the Patriots might have been better off bringing Sanders in, according to The Athletic’s Mike Sando.

"Sanu has been a solid receiver for a long time, but not as much of a downfield threat. Over the past four seasons, Sanders holds a 67-44 edge over Sanu in passes gaining more than 15 yards, despite Sanu playing four additional games. Sanu could have been a natural fit in San Francisco given that Shanahan was previously his offensive coordinator in Atlanta. He might even be flourishing there, given San Francisco’s superior surrounding talent, including George Kittle. The fit has been questionable in New England.”

The 49ers also have an obvious advantage in fielding George Kittle, who continues to cement his status as one of the NFL’s top tight-ends week in and week out.

[RELATED: Where 49ers, Raiders stand in NFL power rankings now]

But imagine what Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady could have whipped up with Emmanuel Sanders stretching the field.

This might go down as a rare mistake in player personnel from the Patriots’ front office, and it also might just be the move that propels the 49ers into playing February football.

Chris Simms breaks down George Kittle's catch in 49ers' win vs. Saints

Chris Simms breaks down George Kittle's catch in 49ers' win vs. Saints

George Kittle made the most significant play of the NFL’s Week 14 slate, catching a short fourth-down pass from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and willing his way into field-goal range.

The herculean effort from Kittle set kicker Robbie Gould up for a game-winning 30-yard field goal to give San Francisco a crucial 48-46 victory in New Orleans that propelled the 49ers back to the top of the NFC standings.

Unsurprisingly, coach Kyle Shanahan diagrammed this play for Kittle to be the No. 1 option, and that’s exactly what happened.

“The rookie [C.J.] Gardner-Johnson is matched up 1-on-1 with Kittle,” NBC Sports NFL analyst Chris Simms said. “The beauty of this play is, a lot of times the 49ers will run an in-breaking route off of this, but here he had the option to break out and he breaks out.

“Gardner-Johnson, who’s kind of laying inside for it, now is at a disadvantage and he’s trailing behind and that becomes the completion to George Kittle.”

[RELATED: Injuries continue to pile up for 49ers after extended trip]

Kittle’s wise decision to break outside put San Francisco back into the driver’s seat for the NFC playoffs, but the 49ers will need to keep the momentum going as the final weeks of the season roll on in order to secure the home-field advantage NFL teams so desperately crave come postseason time.