It’s been a magical season for the San Francisco 49ers. Coming into the year, the Niners were at the biggest rest disadvantage in the NFL. Their opponents had a 20-day rest advantage.
Fast-forward through 17 weeks and the Niners have 11 double-digit wins and feature the best offense in the NFL, and their defense isn’t far behind. That’s led the 49ers to having the second-highest point differential in the NFL, only behind the Baltimore Ravens.
But we’ve also seen the kryptonite for San Francisco. There’s been one consistent theme in their four losses. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell went through each playoff contender to name the biggest flaw, and you can probably guess what he had to say about the Niners:
The 49ers’ flaw: Interceptions
In Purdy’s four losses, though? He has tossed nine picks on 120 pass attempts, for an interception rate of 7.5%. Again, while interceptions happen more in losses than victories, his rate of picks in defeats is more than twice the league average rate of 2.9%.
Of course, there’s a chicken-or-the-egg question here. The 49ers are more likely to lose because Purdy is tossing interceptions, as opposed to Purdy simply throwing interceptions in games that happen to be defeats. Three of Purdy’s losses have come against the Browns, Ravens and Vikings, who have three of the four best defenses.
Do Purdy’s interceptions come in bunches? He hasn’t played long enough for us to really know, and I’m not sure that Purdy loses confidence or gets shaky once he has thrown a pick, but I do think there’s something to that idea. It has less to do with confidence and more to do with game script.
The Browns and Vikings are 16th and 17th in the NFL in turnovers per drive. Both teams force turnovers in bunches and then go long stretches without having any. Baltimore is fourth in turnovers per drive, so it’s easy to be more forgiving to Purdy — especially considering two of his interceptions were tipped in the air.
If we’re looking at the 49ers path to the Super Bowl in terms of which defenses will pose the biggest threat to force turnovers, the only NFC teams in the top-10 of turnovers per drive are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys. We’ve already seen Brock Purdy and the 49ers offense dice up both of those units.
Barnwell also listed one team that each squad needs to avoid. For the 49ers, it’s their most recent loss:
Team to avoid: Baltimore Ravens. This one seems a little obvious given how we just saw the Ravens dominate the 49ers in San Francisco, but Baltimore has also been the NFL’s best starting team. The Ravens have the best first quarter (plus-66, tied with the Cowboys) and first half (plus-142) point differentials, making them the most likely team to get out to an early lead against the 49ers. And as we saw on Christmas, if the Ravens get that lead, watch out.
If and when Baltimore and San Francisco meet in Las Vegas a little over a month from now, the talking points will be focused solely around Purdy’s turnovers in that game.
It was a 4-point game at halftime and the 49ers received the ball to begin the second half. And that was after two first half interceptions. The Niners went on to play their worst quarter of the season and were outscored 17-0.
The odds of a four turnover game, an unnecessary roughness penalty on a kicker, or four possessions in a row where the Niners offense doesn’t score are incredibly slim.