The roster moves by New England and San Francisco this week make it clear: Bill Belichick and Kyle Shanahan are looking ahead, and they see each other in the distance.
Of course, neither team is even guaranteed to make the playoffs, much less face each other in the Super Bowl. But these guys aren’t interested in cliches about only thinking about their next game. Those are for players.
Defense wins in the playoffs, and these undefeated teams are dominating the NFL defensively. They’re also insanely close, statistically. The Patriots are giving up the fewest yards per game this year at 223.14 YPG. The Niners yield 223.50 YPG, just a third of a yard behind.
To illustrate how dominant those numbers are, number 3 out of 32 teams is the Buffalo Bills — at 292.66 yards per game, 69 yards (31%) more. Only one other team (Denver) is under 325 YPG.
While both teams are defensive juggernauts, they also have meh offenses, with DVOA numbers (per Football Outsiders) right about the NFL average (13th for NE; 15th for SF). It appears that both teams imagined their offense stacked up against the other dominant defense, and didn’t like that match-up. So they each went out and got a better wide receiver.
A very long time ago (about two weeks), I wrote this, arguing against a trade for a replacement offensive tackle:
The [Niners] could go deep this year — everyone sees the potential now — but they will be better next year. And the year after that, as their young core grows into their strength together.
A trade is a play for just this year, at the cost of the future. This franchise should be aiming for five strong years. For ten. For a dynasty.
The calculus is different now. GM John Lynch can see that this year’s team is special. They have some of that magic that might not return next year, or the year after, as rookie contracts expire.
Part of it is a surprise — no one expected this (especially not the 49ers’ secondary jelling so quickly). And that means that no one has installed schemes or jiggered their roster to counter the Niners’ strengths. That won’t be true after this season.
As for Belichick, this is totally speculation, but it looks like he has decided this is his final year, and he’s pulling out all the stops to cement his legacy with a final Super Bowl ring. He took over defensive play-calling and is astonishing the league with the results, then running up the score against bad teams. Besides trading for Mohamed Sanu, he also picked up a special teams ace midseason — not something undefeated GMs generally worry about.
The Niners quickly countered by picking up a better receiver who is already familiar with their system in Emmanuel (Burny) Sanders. (Cause he burns defenses get it)
There’s another reason both teams upgraded at WR: they had more problems with injured receivers than was publicly known. The Patriots put Josh Gordon on the Injured Reserve list Wednesday. While he insists he is almost healthy again, that ends his season in New England after a strong start (with 280 yards in the first six games).
Meanwhile, coach Shanahan on Wednesday said that both Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd had “setbacks” in their recoveries from injury. At this point, it’s hard to be confident that either player will return this year. If they do — especially Hurd — it might give Shanahan a crucial advantage in the playoffs, a versatile wild card that opponents have little or no film on.
Another reason both teams upgraded their receiver room is the New Orleans Saints, who also have an excellent defense this year (327.9 YPG, barely 100 YPG worse than the top two) and are obvious Super Bowl contenders. These WR trades will help both teams hold the Saints off, as their defensive strength is on the ground, so it’s not only about SF vs. NE.
But it’s safe to say that Belichick has noticed San Francisco’s sudden defensive strength, especially in the secondary, and that it influenced his decision to upgrade. After all, the Patriots are undefeated with the biggest point differential in the league, averaging 31.9 points per game. There’s no reason to think they need more firepower in the regular season.
If the Niners do get to the big dance, it’s hard to feel optimistic about beating full-throttle Bill Belichick at the peak of his career, and while Tom Brady is starting to feel his age a bit, I don’t know a quarterback I’d rather have in the Super Bowl.
But it’s possible that the Hoodie’s confidence has been shaken a little bit by developments out west. There was speculation at the time of the Garoppolo trade that Belichick was doing a solid for a young coach he respected; that, if he wasn’t going to be allowed to set up Jimmy G. as Brady’s successor in New England, he’d set up Shanahan to do so later.
If so, he must have imagined that happening years after he had safely retired. But as the Sanders trade makes clear, the Niners see opportunity now and they aren’t in the mood to wait.