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Law: Top of mountain or false summit for 49ers?

| Thursday, October 3, 2019

After years of trudging through losing seasons and watching their division rivals, the Seahawks and the Rams, each reach a Super Bowl within the last few years, the San Francisco 49ers have finally fought their way back to the top. Not only do the 49ers (3-0) currently sit atop the NFC West, they stand alone in first place in the NFC — they would be the No. 1 seed in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Unfortunately for Niners fans everywhere, it doesn’t. And before members of the Faithful start booking their plane ticket and hotel for Super Bowl LIV, let’s slow down for a minute and take a more measured look at the 49ers’ prospects.

49ers fans — especially those who didn’t live through the glory days of Joe Montana and Steve Young — have had a rough time of it for a while now. Colin Kaepernick looked like the answer for a season or two, but — and let’s focus solely on football here — he fell off considerably after the Super Bowl run in 2012-13, and the job ended up in Blaine Gabbert’s hands. After a few more quarterbacks came and went, and with them a number of losing seasons, the Niners finally found their long-term solution: former Patriots backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo has had incredibly high highs — see his five-game stretch at the end of 2017 — and some rough times, like when he started off 2018 poorly and then tore his ACL in the third game of the season.

But this year, Garoppolo is both healthy and playing reasonably well. John Lynch, the Niners’ General Manager, has made plenty of questionable decisions, but he has brought in a much-needed influx of young talent. Garoppolo has plenty of offensive weapons including superstar tight end George Kittle, receivers Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis and Deebo Samuel, and Matt Breida alongside Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert out of the backfield. Defensively, the Niners boast a strong defensive line with rookie Nick Bosa and veteran interior rusher DeForest Buckner wreaking havoc and an improved secondary with a healthy Richard Sherman and a more experienced Akhello Witherspoon. I completely understand why some Niners fans might be getting ahead of themselves: It’s been too long, and this team looks great through three games.

Yet the 49ers have unquestionably gotten lucky this year. They beat Tampa Bay because of some terrible quarterbacking by Jameis Winston and a few opportunistic defensive plays, and squeaked by the Mason Rudolph-led Steelers despite committing five turnovers. The combined record of the teams the Niners have beat this year is 3-9. The 49ers have plenty of roster issues: The secondary still needs improvement; the linebacking corps is thin and the offensive line is one or two injuries away from collapse.

However, the 49ers have a great opportunity to prove their legitimacy Monday night against the Cleveland Browns, who stumbled early this season but are coming off an impressive 40-25 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. If the Niners can take care of business against Baker Mayfield and the Dawgs and improve to 4-0, their prospects brighten significantly. It would mean their early season success was no fluke, and it would also help them down the stretch when the Niners face a veritable gauntlet of matchups. The Niners will face the Packers, Ravens, Saints, Falcons, Rams and Seahawks — who have a combined record of 15-9 — in weeks 12 through 17, which means they’ll need to win a lot of games early in the season — so far, so good. If the Niners can build up a buffer of wins before that stretch, they might be able to make a playoff push.

That’s what I think the 49ers are this season — a borderline playoff team, one that might finish 8-8 or 9-7. Some people, invariably, will take the Niners’ early season success to mean that they’re a top team in the NFC — a true competitor for a Super Bowl this year — but the team just isn’t there yet. Don’t fret, though, Niners fans. This team has a lot of promising young talent, and if Jimmy Garoppolo stays healthy and elevates his play a little, the 49ers could be competing for a Super Bowl sooner rather than later.

Even if there’s no Super Bowl in the cards this year, a trip to Wild Card Weekend would be pretty cool, too.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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