There are three teams in the NFC that figure to be locks to make the playoffs: The Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, and Dallas Cowboys. If you were to ask ten different people to rank the top three contenders in the conference, you’re likely to get as many different rankings.
ESPN evaluated the 2022 playoff teams and ranked their chances of making it back to the playoffs. Unsurprisingly, the Kansas City Chiefs ranked No. 1. But the Eagles, thanks to being the third-healthiest team, and the Cowboys, for allegedly having a higher floor, came in at the second and third spots.
Before they were embarrassed in Week 18 by the Commanders, ESPN’s FPI had Dallas as the top team in the NFL last year. Their assumption is that Dak Prescott’s interception rate regresses to the mean, while veterans Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks make an impact.
After those two, it’s the Buffalo Bills, and in the fifth spot, you’ll find the Niners:
Why they’re No. 5: They also might have been the league’s best team (for most of) last season.
Football Outsiders pegged the 49ers as the second-best team by full-season DVOA, but their weighted DVOA metric (which focuses on more recent performance) had San Francisco as the No. 1 team in football.
From Week 8 on, after Christian McCaffrey learned the playbook, the 49ers went 10-0, outscored opponents by 16 points per game and ranked in the top two in both offensive and defensive expected points added (EPA) per snap despite being forced to turn to rookie seventh-round pick Brock Purdy at quarterback. The only thing that eventually slowed down San Francisco was Purdy’s elbow injury, forcing it to turn to journeyman Josh Johnson on the fly in what became an ugly NFC Championship Game loss.
The popular perception after Purdy’s success is that Kyle Shanahan can coach a team with you, me or anybody who isn’t named Josh Johnson into a playoff run. Maybe he can, but it’s worth remembering that the 49ers went 6-17 with Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard across the 2018 and 2020 seasons, when Jimmy Garoppolo was injured. Trey Lance and Sam Darnold might be better than those guys — and Purdy might be healthy enough to start Week 1 — but the Niners haven’t had the sort of floor the Chiefs have had with Mahomes or the Bills have had with Allen.
There are injury risks up and down the offense, too: Essential contributors, such as McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Trent Williams, have significant track records of missing time. The defense added Javon Hargrave in free agency, but it also lost defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, while the offense will be without passing game coordinator Bobby Slowik. I still think the 49ers have 1-seed upside in a division in which the Rams and Cardinals might not be competitive, but they’re a higher-variance team than it might seem at first glance.
It’s also worth remembering that Mullens and Beathard didn’t have the luxury of McCaffrey these versions of Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. The 2018 49ers roster pales in comparison to the talent they field today.
Calling the Niners higher-variance is fair, as we don’t know what to expect from the quarterback position. Purdy played with fire at times last season, and it’s not unreasonable to assume he won’t be as lucky on with some turnovers. But Purdy has enough creativity when the initial play isn’t there to make plays out of structure, which generally favors the offense.
That variance isn’t limited to one side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks figures to be more aggressive, which puts the secondary in more 1-on-1 situations. Deommodore Lenoir will be tested early and often during his first full-season as a starter, and opposing coordinators will look to isolate the 49ers safeties in coverage.
Then, there are the inevitable injuries that’ll test the Niners depth. But factoring in the talent on the team, and more importantly, the rest of the NFC West, it’s difficult to imagine the 2023 playoffs without the 49ers.