The Minnesota Vikings had just defeated the New York Jets, but there was still a sense of disappointment rippling throughout U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings had just blown a 17-point lead and coughed up 486 yards of total offense to an offense led by Mike White. The end of the game sent all 64,000 fans in attendance into a brief panic as the Jets drove into the red zone before Cam Bynum’s game-sealing interception.
A sigh of relief triggered a breeze as stiff as the one that used to blow Vikings fans out of the Metrodome, and the question in everyone’s mind was the same.
Does this team deserve to be 10-2?
There was a different vibe in Santa Clara. The San Francisco 49ers had just defeated the Miami Dolphins, and the party was on. After Brock Purdy came in to relieve an injured Jimmy Garoppolo, the Niners put their foot on the gas to improve to 8-4 on the season.
National pundits took to the airwaves to declare them as legitimate NFC contenders. They put them in the middle of a three-team race that included the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. The Niners were nothing like the frauds the nation had just watched in Minnesota, and they were on a collision course against the winner of Joe Buck’s favorite division.
But to crown the 49ers as a superior team to the Vikings is ignoring their flaws. While San Francisco has some traits that could carry them to a deep playoff run, others are just as concerning as the ones in Minnesota. The Niners are just as big of “frauds” as the purple pretenders of the Mississippi.
Before we go on, we need to state the obvious: The 49ers are an outstanding team. With the league’s No. 1 defense in points and yards allowed, they have some of the same vibes the Vikings had in 2017 – and their head coach’s specialty isn’t even on that side of the ball!
That’s where things get messed up.
Many pundits hail Kyle Shanahan as an offensive genius. When Trey Lance went down, he relied on Garoppolo to steer the ship. When Garoppolo went down, this year’s Mr. Irrelevant stepped in to beat one of the best teams in the AFC. But Shanahan is a mercurial figure. He’s the kid who runs to the corner of the room to play with the box instead the a big, shiny Christmas present.
The Lance and Christian McCaffrey acquisitions are prime examples. The 49ers gave up three first-round picks to select Lance third overall in the 2021 draft and seemed ready to hand the keys to him this season. While his teammates gave Lance a glowing endorsement the following preseason, Shanahan stubbornly held onto Garoppolo and eventually made him the highest-paid backup in the NFL.
Garoppolo’s offseason shoulder surgery may have stalled whatever trade market the 49ers had anticipated, but Lance’s job never seemed secure. If Lance didn’t break his ankle in a Week 2 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, it’s possible Shanahan would have made the switch at some point, flushing picks that the Dolphins used to acquire Jaylen Waddle, Tyreek Hill, and Bradley Chubb.
The same scenario has played out with McCaffrey. The 49ers sent four draft picks to the Carolina Panthers, including this year’s second-, third-, and fourth-round selections for McCaffrey. Still, Shanahan preferred to use Elijah Mitchell as the centerpiece of their running game until he suffered a knee injury.
With 4.1 yards per carry, McCaffrey hasn’t had the immediate impact many had predicted. He’s also battling through a knee injury.
This is a theme throughout the San Francisco offense. Deebo Samuel was one of the NFL’s most feared weapons a year ago, with 1,770 yards of total offense and 14 combined touchdowns. This year he has only 776 total yards and four touchdowns.
For three of the past four seasons, George Kittle has been Pro Football Focus’s top-graded tight end. However, he has fallen to 10th, with the lowest offensive grade since his rookie season in 2017.
San Francisco’s offensive line is superior to Minnesota’s. But Christian Darrisaw has ascended to the same level as 49ers left tackle Trent Williams, giving both teams similar protection on the edges.
Still, led by their offensive wunderkind, the Niners have scored fewer total points than the Vikings.
What Kevin O’Connell has constructed is far from a perfect offense, but it knows its strengths. Justin Jefferson remains on pace for the first 2,000-yard season in NFL history, and Dalvin Cook has averaged 4.7 yards per carry despite being a full year older than McCaffrey.
Although Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, and Kirk Cousins are having down years statistically, none of them feel like they’re being criminally underutilized, which seems to be happening every week in San Francisco.
The Vikings are also doing this against better competition. Throughout Sunday’s win over the Jets, Minnesota has faced six top-10 defenses, racking up a 4-2 record. The 49ers have faced only two top-10 defenses, including an 11-10 loss to the 3-9 Denver Broncos.
A Week 1 loss to the 3-10 Chicago Bears and a Week 6 loss to the 5-8 Atlanta Falcons should have had some raising their eyebrows. However, those failures have become overlooked because the Niners have gone on a five-game winning streak.
The Vikings have had similar success, going on a seven-game winning streak earlier this season. Still, all the national pundits want to remember is the primetime loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2 and a 40-3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that was so bad that CBS had to apologize on-air for making it the game of the week.
But the Eagles and Cowboys are different in that they’re both teams in the elite class of NFC contenders. San Francisco picked up wins against Seattle, the Los Angeles Chargers, and Miami, three teams currently in the playoff hunt. However, they had their disaster in a 44-23 home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Furthermore, the 49ers have feasted on a schedule that has allowed them to pick up:
- Two wins against the 3-9 Los Angeles Rams
- A win against the 4-8 Carolina Panthers
- A win on a neutral field against the 4-8 Arizona Cardinals
- And a home win where they only scored 13 points against the 4-8 New Orleans Saints
The Vikings have had their own luck (i.e., catching backup quarterbacks throughout the year). But they have bolstered their resumé over the past couple of weeks.
They went to DC and had a 10-point comeback against the Washington Commanders. They traveled to Buffalo and earned an impressive overtime victory. And they had an opportunity late in the game to put 40 points on Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Then they scored a win over a contending Jets team on Sunday.
The wins haven’t been pretty, but the main thing is that they’re winning against quality competition. Vikings fans may have rolled their eyes at White a week ago, but the Jets coaching staff looked at their team and decided that White would give them a spark. It may not last, but the Jets are trying to catch lightning in a bottle like the Vikings did with Case Keenum in 2017.
How hard would the talking heads have laughed if the Vikings dominated Zach Wilson for 60 minutes? They likely would highlight that Wilson has been a bust and Minnesota had beaten a low-quality quarterback.
There’s also the 17-point lead that almost disappeared, but if anyone knows about blowing leads in big moments, it’s Shanahan.
- Remember when the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead? Shanahan was the offensive coordinator.
- Remember when the 49ers blew a 10-point lead in the Super Bowl? Shanahan was the head coach.
- Remember when San Francisco couldn’t hold on against O’Connell’s Rams in last year’s NFC Championship game? It was Shanahan who galaxy-brained his way into the offseason.
Nobody wants to remember this, even as the 49ers turn to a quarterback who was one pick from going undrafted. Everyone wants to label the 49ers as a serious contender while forgetting that the Vikings even exist.
That isn’t to say the Niners aren’t a contender, but they’re not in a different universe as some pundits would make you believe. It could set up for a collision course in Santa Clara or Minneapolis in a few weeks, where the Vikings could show just how similar they are to the NFC’s sudden darlings.