Are the 49ers back in the playoff race, or was the upset victory last week against Los Angeles a fluke?
We will find out on Sunday afternoon when they take on the New England Patriots (2-3) in Foxborough. One thing is certain, the 49ers will be facing a hungry Patriots team. Last week it was the 49ers that were fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive by not falling two games below .500. That has now switched over to New England.
The Patriots come into Sunday having lost their previous two games. The Patriots organization has not lost three in a row since 2002, and they face the possibility of going winless for the month of October. Starting quarterback Cam Newton will finally be back at full strength for New England after missing one game due to testing positive for Covid-19 and then looking sluggish in his return a week ago against Denver. The Patriots offense had been rolling prior to Newton testing positive, averaging 29 points per game over the first three weeks of the season.
For the 49ers, a win will not only keep them in the playoff chase but also move them into a three-way tie for second place in the NFC West with Arizona and Los Angeles who both also have very tough matchups this weekend to keep from dropping to 4-3 on the season.
With that as a backdrop, let’s take a look at 5 burning questions to which the answers will be key to the outcome on Sunday.
1. Will the 49ers be able to offset the loss of Raheem Mostert? Raheem Mostert is the most important player for the 49ers offense. Not only does he have the ability to hit the home run at any time, his ability to hit doubles and triples on a regular basis is a big part of keeping the 49ers offense on schedule throughout a possession.
With Mostert out the 49ers will turn to Jerick McKinnon, JaMycal Hasty and Jeff Wilson Jr to fill the void. McKinnon has struggled this season when called upon to be the feature back, averaging only 3.3 yards per carry against the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. Hasty, an undrafted free agent out of Baylor, played well on Sunday night gaining 4.1 yards per attempt on nine carries. McKinnon has shown to be the better all-around back with his ability to pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. It will be interesting to see how much Shanahan trusts Hasty in those two areas of the game, because we have not yet seen him in that capacity. These two are the best backs currently available and should receive the bulk of the carries out on Sunday afternoon, with Wilson receiving only a few snaps here and there.
2. Will it be a good homecoming for Jimmy Garoppolo? Garoppolo returns to Foxborough for the first time since being traded to the 49ers in 2017. Garoppolo is coming off his best statistical game of the year, but he received lots of help from throws that were nothing more than designed runs. When called upon to throw the ball past the line of scrimmage last week, Garoppolo was able to complete only 58% of his 24 pass attempts. If he is unable to improve upon that this week, the members of the Patriots front office that chose to move him will be vindicated.
3. Can the 49ers offensive line repeat? Just like Jimmy Garoppolo, the much-maligned 49ers offensive line put together its best performance of 2020 last week against Los Angeles. The offensive line did not allow a sack and paved the way for 185 rushing yards on the game if you include the carries from Deebo Samuel on forward handoffs. This week the offensive line will face a Patriots defense that has not been very successful at getting to the quarterback. New England has only eight sacks through the first five games, led by Chase Winovich who comes into Sunday with 2.5 sacks on the season. Look for New England to try to bring extra pressure from the linebacker position on Sunday.
4. Can the 49ers defense contain Cam Newton? It is no secret that the 49ers defense has struggled with stopping running quarterbacks. On Sunday they will face Cam Newton, one of the best running quarterbacks in the league. While Newton doesn’t have the lateral quickness of Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray, he has the power of a running back and that is exactly how the Patriots utilize him. Using Newton’s unique skillset allows the Patriots to get an additional blocker into the run game and outman the defense. The 49ers defense will need to hold Newton to less than the 5 yards per carry that he has averaged this season, and force Newton to throw from the pocket this week.
5. Can Kyle Shanahan reverse the trend against Bill Belichick? Shanahan has faced Belichick three times in his career, and in those three matchups his offense has been able to manage 27 points per game. Unfortunately for Shanahan, those point totals have dropped with each game: 34 with the Texans in 2009, 27 with Washington in 2011, and 21 with Atlanta in the Super Bowl following the 2016 season.
5b. Is the 49ers offense from Sunday night against Los Angeles sustainable? This is a bit of a bonus question. There is no getting around the fact that Kyle Shanahan was able to put together a terrific plan for the first half against the Rams. His scheme took the pressure away from Garoppolo by giving him simple throws with minimal to no reading of the defense necessary. The scheme also allowed the offensive line to not worry about pass protection, its biggest weakness. Is this something that they will be able to get away with again, or will the Belichick be able to take these flashy plays away and force the Shanahan to beat him with a more traditional style? It’s going to be fascinating to watch it unfold on Sunday.
Prediction Time: 49ers 17 Patriots 20
Don’t worry 49ers fans. The 49ers have killed my picks the last 4 weeks. You can thank me Sunday night if they pull off the win.