OK, 49ers fans. Your team is undefeated and riding a ton of momentum, so it’s time to PANIC. Wait, what?
Let’s rewind that a little bit.
Recent history has been unkind to teams that have carried the “last remaining unbeaten team” mantle. It’s been 13 years since the final team to lose a game went on to win a Super Bowl that same season, when it happened to the 2006 Colts. In the years after that, five teams have lost the Super Bowl, two teams have missed the postseason altogether, and the rest have been dealt an early exit in the playoffs.
As pointed out by Andrew Siciliano, the most recent examples are pretty dire.
Last season, the Rams were stonewalled by the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The year before that, the Chiefs wound up going one-and-done in the postseason after allowing Marcus Mariota to catch a touchdown pass from his dang self. The Vikings missed the playoffs after being the last unbeaten team in 2016, while the Panthers fell to the Broncos in the Super Bowl in 2015.
Now, it’s the 49ers who are the only team with an unblemished record. They’re 8-0 and have looked like the cream of the crop in the NFL this season. They also face one of the toughest schedules the rest of the way, with six of their last eight games coming against teams with a winning record. That includes the Packers, Ravens, Saints, Rams, and two games against the Seahawks.
Oh, and the last time the 49ers were the sole remaining unbeaten team? It was 1990. They started out 10-0 and later lost to the Giants in the NFC Championship after a critical Roger Craig fumble.
Panic index: Really, there’s nothing to be concerned about. The 49ers are playing well and are getting healthier. Present-day history isn’t working out in their favor, but plenty of teams have won the Super Bowl the same year they were the last to lose. In fact, it happened six times in the 90s.
Besides, who wouldn’t want to be in this position rather than, y’know, all the teams that have lost? There’s nothing the 49ers can do but handle the pressure of being the top team in the league as best as they can, and hope the ghosts of recent playoffs past don’t haunt them.
The Patriots’ offense kinda blows now
Tom Brady is slowing down. Yes, he’s still the guy who can win the Super Bowl in his 40s or throw perfect back-shoulder darts to his tailback when called upon, but he’s no longer performing like an all-around top quarterback. His passer rating has declined each season since his post-Deflategate revenge tour, dropping from a pristine 112.2 in 2016 to a merely decent 93.1 in 2019. His 3.9 percent touchdown rate is the lowest of his career.
There are outside factors at play here as well. Brady’s missing two major components of his offensive line with left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center David Andrews both on injured reserve (Wynn is slated to return later in the season). His receiving corps has churned through wideouts while 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry has yet to take the field. Rob Gronkowski is how spending his Sundays as part of the pregame show. His running game is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry.
This has all conspired to make New England’s once-fearsome offense a fairly average unit. That’s been fine over the first half of the season thanks to a tissue-soft schedule, but it could be a glaring flaw over a much-tougher November-December slate.
The defense, as ludicrous as it’s been, has some issues to contend with as well. The Patriots are so focused on annihilating opposing passing offenses that a handful of prepared foes have found a way to carve up the middle of the field left vulnerable to the run. Mark Ingram did it last week with 115 yards on 15 carries. Frank Gore needed only 17 runs to get to 109 yards back in Week 4 — and he hasn’t had more than 60 yards in a single game since. Nick Chubb ran for 6.6 yards per carry in his 131-yard performance in New England.
If that group gets gashed, do the Pats have the offensive chops to keep up? They didn’t in Week 9 against the Ravens.
Panic index: Brady’s pocket awareness has slipped noticeably behind a shaky offensive line in 2019 and he’s out there doing this with easy passes:
That said, he’s Tom Brady. Doubt him at your own peril.
The Vikings can’t beat any team with a pulse
We’ve made it to the midway point of the season, and we’re starting to learn more about which teams are for real, and which aren’t. One of those teams the jury is still out on is the Minnesota Vikings, who are sitting at 6-3 through the first nine weeks of the season.
After a rocky start to the year, Minnesota has settled in. It has games against the Cowboys and Broncos in the next two weeks before a bye just before Thanksgiving.
Everything is set up for a postseason run for the Vikings, except — well — they’re only beating bottom feeders right now.
Only one of the Vikings’ wins was over a team that currently has a winning record. That’s Philadelphia, which is just barely there by beating the Bills and Bears in the last two weeks to climb to 5-4.
When Minnesota played the Packers in Week 2 — a team actually capable of doing damage in January — Kirk Cousins threw two interceptions and fumbled twice, one of which was recovered by Green Bay. When the Vikings played the Chiefs in Week 9, they lost 26-23 even though Patrick Mahomes was still sidelined with a knee injury.
This is a problem for Cousins that predates his arrival in Minnesota:
It’s hard to trust the Vikings as a legitimate contender when they self-destruct every time a playoff-level team is in their way.
Panic index: The Cowboys aren’t exactly a juggernaut either, with four of their five wins coming against losing teams. The Vikings still have a golden opportunity to hit their bye week at 8-3.
Even if the Vikings struggle against a slightly more difficult schedule in December — including games against the Seahawks and Packers — they’re set up to make the playoffs and then who knows what’ll happen. Questioning their chances at actually winning it all is fair, though.
The Packers have never looked worse this season
In Aaron Rodgers’ own words, the Packers ate a little humble pie this week. They were perhaps listening to their own hype a little too much and weren’t prepared going into Sunday’s game against the Chargers.
LA entered the game at 3-5, while Green Bay came in at 7-1. Los Angeles was the clear underdog, but Shane Steichen called a great game in his debut as offensive coordinator for the Chargers. It wasn’t just the offense, though. The Chargers dominated from the start in a 26-11 win.
They held the ball for just under 36 minutes, didn’t have a single three-and-out, and more than doubled the Packers’ yardage (442 to 184). The big performance for Los Angeles came on the ground. Melvin Gordon, who has been slow to get going this season, totaled 109 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. Austin Ekeler added 70 rushing yards.
On defense, Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa teamed up to harass Rodgers, sacking him three times on a day when the Packers’ offense couldn’t get anything going. In fact, Green Bay had just 84 yards after the first three quarters and Rodgers didn’t even throw a touchdown until there were six minutes left in the game. Rodgers had the fifth-lowest passing yardage game of his career (among games in which he played all four quarters) with just 161.
With a couple big games coming up — against the Panthers and 49ers — the Packers can’t afford to play like that again, not when they’re in a tight NFC North race.
So the big question for the Packers is whether this was just one-off stinker, or if the Chargers have illustrated how exactly to beat Green Bay.
Panic index: Strictly speaking, the answer is probably a little of both. Sometimes teams lay an egg. The Chargers also did exactly what teams should strive for to beat Green Bay: run the ball, pressure Rodgers, and keep the football out of Rodgers’ hands.
Those three keys are something that every NFL team already knows. The Chargers happened to execute, while the Packers maybe underestimated them a bit. Green Bay will need to put an emphasis on stopping the run moving forward, but it’s still in very good position. And if nothing else, this loss probably served as a wake-up call for the Packers.