The San Francisco 49ers are a championship-caliber team, but Jimmy Garoppolo is the biggest obstacle to fulfilling their promise.
What can keep the San Francisco 49ers from a Super Bowl appearance? Perhaps the question is better phrased as who can stop them?
Jimmy Garoppolo is the obvious answer.
On Sunday, the 49ers fell 20-17 to the Baltimore Ravens on the game’s final play. No shame in that. Baltimore is the AFC’s best, and this was a cross-country challenge.
The problem is in the details. On the game’s second drive with San Francisco leading 7-0, the Ravens showed blitz. This isn’t surprising. Nobody brings pressure more than Baltimore. Garoppolo took the snap on 3rd and 6 from his own 31-yard line. He dropped back, hit his back foot and held the ball. Hit. Fumble. Ravens ball.
San Francisco never took the lead again following a quick Baltimore touchdown.
Throughout the afternoon, Garoppolo was tentative. Despite knowing blitzes would come, hot reads weren’t hit. The 49ers were 4-of-12 on third down, and Garoppolo finished the day with 165 passing yards. Baltimore has a good defense, but receivers were open. Consistently, the ball was late and/or inaccurate.
On the season, the 28-year-old has completed 69 percent of his throws. He has 2,896 passing yards with 21 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Nice numbers. But playing quarterback is much more than numbers. It’s about understanding situations, making the right read quickly and not being the bad cog in a well-oiled machine. Too often, Garoppolo needs fixing.
The 49ers have a great defense. The group is led by pugnacious defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a man who will certainly have a head-coaching gig this time next year. Saleh’s unit has been devastating this year, ranking first against the pass behind the best front seven in football.
San Francisco also has an offensive mastermind in head coach Kyle Shanahan. Nobody creates more open receivers and rushing lanes than Shanahan, using angles and motion to disguise and dissect. Watching the 49ers film is athletic poetry admits chaos.
Still, none of it matters if Garoppolo doesn’t improve over the next month. The potential is within him, just ask the Green Bay Packers. Two weeks ago, Garoppolo went for 253 yards and two touchdowns on a whopping 12.7 yards per attempt. However, the week prior, Garoppolo needed only to manage the game against the overmatched Arizona Cardinals. He amassed 424 yards and four touchdowns, but threw two red-zone interceptions which almost spelled the difference.
Against the New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and other top NFC competition, Garoppolo making a few splash plays isn’t enough. He needs to make the hot read before the snap. He needs to have the courage of his convictions. He needs to be a consistent positive.
Right now, the 49ers have the NFC’s best defense. They have ample offensive talent.
They also have a quarterback who can win or throw them out of any game.
Top 10 pending non-QB free agents in 2020
1. Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE, Seattle Seahawks
2. Bryan Bulaga, RT, Green Bay Packers
3. Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs
4. Arik Armstead, DE, San Francisco 49ers
5. Amari Cooper, WR, Dallas Cowboys
6. Shaquil Barrett, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
7. Marcus Peters, CB, Baltimore Ravens
8. Matthew Judon, EDGE, Baltimore Ravens
9. Byron Jones, CB, Dallas Cowboys
10. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
“We’re just jelling together. We all knew it wasn’t going to show up early in the season but we just kept working and it’s starting to show. There is still tons of improvement to make but we only let them in the end zone once. That’s the whole thing — we can give up a lot of yards but we lock down when we get in the red zone. That’s the difference between now and a few weeks ago.”
– Chiefs’ linebacker Anthony Hitchens on the defense’s progression this year
Quietly, Kansas City is playing better defensively.
Over the past two games, the Chiefs have allowed 26 points and intercepted six passes. The run defense remains a concern, but the secondary has become a strength behind a safety tandem of veteran Tyrann Mathieu and rookie Juan Thornhill. The cornerbacks are helping the unit rank top-five in DVOA pass defense, with second-year man Charvarius Ward having a fantastic campaign.
Last year, the Chiefs were a great offense and nothing else. This season, there’s balance in the heartland.
The Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals were a combined 0-18 when they met the New York Jets this season. Both won in routs.
Info learned this week
1. The AFC playoff picture is wild, but beginning to clear
The Cleveland Browns are finished. The Chiefs and Buffalo Bills are in. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans are trending up. The Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders are on life support.
Going into Week 14, here’s the playoff picture:
1. Baltimore Ravens (10-2)
2. New England Patriots (10-2)
3. Houston Texans (8-4)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)
5. Buffalo Bills (9-3)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)
In the hunt: Tennessee Titans (7-5), Oakland Raiders (6-6), Indianapolis Colts (6-6)
While anything is possible, the Patriots and Ravens appear destined for bye weeks. Kansas City should win its fourth-straight AFC West title, leading Oakland by two and a tiebreaker. Buffalo has a hammerlock on a wild card spot, up two games.
The question is now who wins the AFC South, and who grabs the other wild card?
The Texans and Titans play two of their last three games against each other. If they split, the tiebreaker goes to Houston due to divisional record. In short, the Texans have the inside track. They only need one of those games sans something unforeseen.
As for the wild card, the South’s loser will be in play alongside Pittsburgh. It appears 10 wins will be the magic number, meaning Oakland and Indianapolis must win out and potentially get help. No easy task.
The AFC playoff picture is still murky, but the waters are starting to clear.
2. The Patriots can’t score, and it’s not going to improve
We already covered the AFC playoff picture, but the Patriots deserve their own note.
New England was throttled again in Houston, losing 28-22 on Sunday night. Tom Brady had another rough night, going 24-of-47 for 326 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Those numbers were greatly inflated in garbage time, with 137 yards and two scores coming in the fourth quarter of an already-decided game.
It must be said Brady has little help, with only Julian Edelman getting open with any consistency. The offensive line, down to its third-string center, looks confused and outclassed on a weekly basis.
The Patriots deserve the benefit of the doubt. They’ve been to nine Super Bowls with Brady, including the previous three. New England is the king until killed.
All that said, the Patriots aren’t the quality of Baltimore or Kansas City. They might struggle with Houston even in Foxborough come January.
New England has long won because it can do so in myriad fashions. Now, the Patriots are a one-dimensional team with no obvious help on the horizon.
3. Cowboys have the slight advantage on Eagles down stretch
The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys both look terrible. Still, the race exists, and it’s an important one.
Barring a miracle, Philadelphia or Dallas will be the NFC’s fourth seed and host on Wild Card weekend. The other team will be watching the postseason from home. With the Cowboys leading the division by a game at 6-6, they have the advantage considering the schedules.
The Cowboys have the Chicago Bears and Eagles on the road, with the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins at home. Philadelphia draws the New York Giants twice, Dallas at home and Washington away. The Eagles will likely be favored in all four games. Dallas in three.
Still, Dallas already beat Philadelphia. The win looms large with four to play.
Both teams have been a mess much of the season. Still, one will host a playoff game next month.
4. Drew Lock’s performance will impact multiple teams come the draft
Drew Lock was average for a first start. His next four are worth watching, and not only in Denver.
Lock and his Denver Broncos won 20-17 over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, but that’s besides the ball. In his NFL debut, Lock was 18-of-28 for 134 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. There were glimpses to be excited about, and ugly ducks as well.
So why care about his performance on a hopeless Broncos team? It’s impact on the draft.
If Lock plays well over the next month, general manager John Elway is far less inclined to use a potential top-10 pick on a quarterback. If that’s the case, quarterback-needy teams are smiling.
The Bengals and Dolphins are overwhelmingly expected to select quarterbacks early. After them, the Chargers and Carolina Panthers are worth watching — more on those teams below. A darkhorse? The Colts, who could find a long-term upgrade over Jacoby Brissett.
5. Vikings, Seahawks result has massive implications on NFC races
The Minnesota Vikings visit the Seahawks on Monday night. The Green Bay Packers and 49ers will be watching.
Minnesota (8-3) and Seattle (9-2) are both a half-game back in their respective divisions. A win for the Vikings and they remain deadlocked atop the NFC North with the Packers coming to Minneapolis in Week 16. Meanwhile, the Seahawks winning would mean leapfrogging San Francisco based on a head-to-head tiebreaker. The 49ers, at 10-2, would be the No. 5 seed. Seattle would bolt to the No. 2 spot.
Considering the schedule for all four teams, much can and will change. Regardless, the winner of Minnesota-Seattle is putting itself in fine shape.
The weather played a significant role in a litany of games this weekend. The answer? Longer cleats, shoveling during commercials and tarps.
Back in the day, teams were cleverer. In the 1933 NFL Championship Game, the New York Giants and Chicago Bears couldn’t get traction on the frozen Polo Grounds field. Trailing 10-3 at halftime, the Giants sent an employee to a department store for basketball sneakers. New York scored 27 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, winning 30-13.
The afternoon became lore, known as The Sneaker Game.
Veteran quarterbacks will be available this offseason. But which ones?
For starters, Philip Rivers and Cam Newton are terrific bets to change laundry.
Rivers is 38 years old and struggling. Rivers is slated to hit free agency for the first time in his career, and odds are he signs elsewhere with the Chargers entering a new era.
With the Carolina Panthers in the midst of another playoff-less season, second-year owner David Tepper may be leaning toward a new head coach. If Ron Rivera doesn’t return, a new staff with a longer leash may look to move on from the injured Newton. If Carolina releases the former MVP, it saves $19.2 million.
While Marcus Mariota is certainly out in Tennessee, the man picked one spot before him is likely staying put. When Tampa Bay extended general manager Jason Licht on a five-year deal, it essentially extended Jameis Winston. Winston has continued his inconsistent play, but he is Licht’s guy. Whether it be franchise tag or multi-year deal, Winston very likely remains with the Buccaneers.
Finally, Nick Foles. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed Foles to a four-year, $88 million deal. Unfortunately, he’s been both hurt and ineffective this season. Still, cutting Foles isn’t happening. The Jaguars would absorb $33 million in dead money. While Gardner Minshew is the cheaper — and perhaps better — option, Foles isn’t hitting free agency. The only way he leaves Jacksonville is via trade, which saves the Jaguars $3.1 million.