Detroit Lions

49ers ranked No. 1 among NFC playoff contenders, former NFL exec says

49ers ranked No. 1 among NFC playoff contenders, former NFL exec says

The 49ers are the last remaining undefeated team in the NFC. They did what they were supposed to, taking advantage of the early portion of the season schedule, which was considerably less challenging than what the latter stages of it will bring.

San Francisco is one of 10 NFC teams with at least three wins. Then there's also the Lions, sitting just behind that group at 2-1-1.

Surely, as the season wears on, the group contending for the six playoff spots in the conference will thin out a bit. Critical injuries are certain to occur, and some quick starts surely are fool's gold. Still, though, that's a crowded field, and each of those 11 teams has a legitimate chance to qualify for the postseason.

The Athletic's Michael Lombardi previously has served as an executive for numerous NFL teams, including the 49ers, Browns, Eagles, Raiders and Patriots. He has seen a lot of playoff football, and recently he set out to rank the 11 NFC contenders based on the first five weeks of play.

And let's just say, he's a believer in San Francisco.

Lombardi ranked the 49ers first overall among the 11 NFC contenders, while the Eagles, Saints, Packers, Seahawks and Cowboys rounded out the top six. 

"The 49ers have everything I love about a team -- a strong defensive line, with depth that can rush the passer, along with an offense that scores early," Lombardi wrote. "The 49ers also currently rank 2nd in offensive rushes and completions, with 58.3 per game (anything over 51 is excellent) and defensive rushes and completions allowed, with just 38.5 (anything below 46 is great.)"

Everyone is going to have their own version of the rankings, but there's certainly evidence to support Lombardi's assertion. Consider this: The 49ers have outscored their opponents by 70 points so far this season, whereas the Eagles and Cowboys are a combined plus-71. The four NFC North teams area a combined plus-85, and the Saints ... they're a minus-1.

San Francisco will face five of the 10 other NFC contenders throughout the remainder of the regular season, including two matchups with each of the Rams and Seahawks. The first of those meetings with Los Angeles comes this Sunday in Week 6, and Lombardi believes it will be a significant challenge for the 49ers, particularly due to some of the injuries that have occurred.

"This week they’ll be playing without both starting tackles, Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey," he wrote, "and so their overall depth on the O-line will be tested against a good Rams front (albeit one missing Clay Matthews.)"

[RELATED: Kittle questionable for NFC West clash between 49ers, Rams]

Sunday will be the first of many crucial NFC contender matchups for San Francisco over the next 12 weeks. But if they beat the Rams, the bandwagon is only going to get more crowded.

49ers will have hands full with Kyler Murray for foreseeable future


49ers will have hands full with Kyler Murray for foreseeable future

The 49ers got off to a winning start to the 2019 NFL season Sunday with a 31-17 road victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unfortunately for San Francisco, nobody in the NFC West lost.

The LA Rams went into Carolina and earned a tough 30-27 win over the Panthers, and the Seahawks managed to hold on and beat the Cincinnati Bengals 21-20 in Seattle. Both of those results were somewhat expected, as the NFC West squads were favored in both matchups.

That can't be said for the Arizona Cardinals, who were underdogs at home against the Detroit Lions. They didn't win, but they didn't lose either, as Arizona erased an 18-point second-half deficit to stun Detroit on the way to a 27-27 tie.

While the Cardinals never got a chance to attempt a game-winning kick in overtime, they wouldn't have even reached that point if not for the heroics of their rookie quarterback.

Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, looked somewhat overmatched in the preseason, and that remained the case Sunday as Detroit built a 17-3 lead in the first half, over which he completed just 6 of 16 passes for 41 yards and zero touchdowns with one interception. The second half -- and especially the fourth quarter -- presented a different story.

After the Lions increased their lead to 24-6 just 13 seconds into the fourth quarter, Murray began to work his magic. His deft touch was on display, as he found running back David Johnson down the seam for the first touchdown pass of his career.

That cut the Cardinals' deficit to 24-16, and in the final minute of regulation, Murray pulled Arizona even to send the game into OT.

With first-and-goal at the Lions' 4-yard line, Murray rolled out to his right and found none other than the immortal Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown to pull the Cardinals within two. 

Then, on the two-point conversion, Murray connected with Christian Kirk for the game-tying score.

Arizona got the ball to start overtime, and on the second play, Murray showed off his arm strength, finding Fitzgerald deep down the left side to set up a go-ahead field goal.

On each of those plays, you can see aspects of Murray's skill set that made him so appealing to Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals. Murray's athleticism is off the charts, he has great arm strength and accuracy, and as Week 1 showed, he also has a flair for the dramatic.

[RELATED: What we learned about 49ers in season-opening win over Bucs]

The 49ers' defense played a key role in their season-opening win, but moving forward, it sure looks like they'll have their hands full with Murray for many years to come.

Raiders sign Luke Willson, add to already competitive tight end group

Raiders sign Luke Willson, add to already competitive tight end group

The Raiders added depth to an already sturdy tight end group by signing Luke Willson on Friday afternoon, adding fire to what should be a competitive position group throughout the offseason and training camp.

Willson isn’t guaranteed one of the three (or four, maximum) available spots on September’s 53-man roster, but he’ll challenge for one if he finds previous form following a down year. He was an effective low-volume target with the Seattle Seahawks, but didn’t pan out with the Detroit Lions in 2018.

Standing 6-foot-5, 251 pounds, Willson can be an effective blocker and will surely be in the mix on special teams.

[RELATED: NFL execs reportedly worried about Antonio Brown trade ramifications]

Willson joins a position group that already includes Lee Smith, Derek Carrier, Darren Waller and Paul Butler. Jared Cook signed with the New Orleans Saints earlier this week, and Waller will be given a crack at his receiving role. Don’t rule out the Raiders selecting a tight end early, or at some point in this year’s NFL draft.

With up to four roster spots available, the established Willson could pay dividends, or push Carrier to be more impactful on offense.

As a side note, Willson is from Windsor, Canada. The Raiders are in talks to play an exhibition game north of the border against the Green Bay Packers.