When you bring to mind the three best teams in the National Football League do they include the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers?
For most people, the answer would be yes, yes and what?
The Patriots and Chiefs were the only two teams to reach four wins this year without a setback, if the 49ers beat the Cleveland Browns tonight at Levi’s Stadium, they would be the third. Does that elevate the 49ers to elite status in the league?
Winning in the NFL is relative. A couple weeks ago the football world thought the Dallas Cowboys were an elite team, they had three wins against no losses. But, a closer examination of the Cowboys success shows that their victories were gained against three talent challenged opponents, the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins. Once the Cowboys opposition was a move up in class, Dallas has lost a pair of games to the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
The 49ers won on opening day in Tampa Bay, and the victory over the Buccaneers was well received in the Bay Area by their win starved fans. In second week action, the 49ers were underdogs against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that still hasn’t won this season under first-year head coach Zac Taylor in five tries.
Two weeks ago, the 49ers won their third straight game at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, another team that is in trouble and played the 49ers without their opening day starting quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger was lost the week before to a season ending injury. You might say the 49ers three wins this year have been against weak competition, and you’d be right.
Now that San Francisco has had two weeks to savory their 3-0 start, last week they had their bye, they play another team that they think they can beat. The Browns come to town following a road win over the Baltimore Ravens and a pair of victories in their opening four games.
From purely a matchup perspective on competition and results, I like the math that says after five weeks the 49ers are much more likely to be 3-1 and the Browns 3-2 than San Francisco sprinting to a 4-0 start and the Browns falling to a losing mark.
The point spread doesn’t agree.
The 49ers are favored by 4½ points tonight, five points at some locations, and their fans are filing into their Santa Clara facility anticipating a fourth straight victory.
Does that mean I recommend a wager on the Browns with the points tonight?
Maybe the 49ers are ebbing towards being an elite team again, a distinction they held for nearly two decades beginning in 1981. This is the third year that head coach Kyle Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch have been running the show in San Francisco. If an administration and coaching staff are to jell into success, history shows that the third season is the year that positive work often comes to fruition.
Last year, the 49ers hopes, buoyed by a late season surge in 2017 after the insertion of Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, were way out of whack. The expectations versus talent scale worked against San Francisco last season, and an injury to Garoppolo early in the campaign only exasperated the situation.
But, that four win season did something else, it provided the 49ers one more draft with an early choice, one more opportunity to add talent to an emerging roster. The 4-12 campaign in 2018 also lowered expectations for this year, which added motivation for the 49ers to win as underdogs against the Buccaneers and Bengals to open this season.
Two things drive tonight’s decision on this game. First, I’m not laying points with San Francisco while they go for an unlikely fourth straight win, and second, I’m not getting in front of this train if indeed the 49ers turnaround is in full flight.
We will all know a lot more about both these teams after tonight’s game, I just don’t know enough before the Monday Night Football kickoff to put money on either side.