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That looked like a team that should win the NFC

© Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Most rational people expected them to get here. Regardless of who was at quarterback, this 49ers team had far too much talent to sit amidst the muck and mire of the NFL’s middle class for the entirety of this season.

That was the expectation before they acquired Christian McCaffrey, at a time when the offense consistently sputtered, struggling to convert on third downs and in the red zone.

After a drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs, McCaffrey near-singlehandedly won them their following game against the hapless Los Angeles Rams.

But the offense hadn’t maximized every weapon yet; McCaffrey, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Elijah Mitchell, even Kyle Juszczyk.

Not until Monday night.

Kittle (four receptions, 84 yards) and Aiyuk (two receptions, 20 yards) both had a pair of touchdown receptions. Deebo Samuel had a 39-yard touchdown run and seven catches for 57 yards. McCaffrey had 106 yards and 7.57 yards per his 14 touches. Mitchell had nine carries for 59 yards (6.6 yards per carry). Juszcyzk had some exemplary blocks to open up chunk run plays and got a little piece of the action with a four-yard fullback dive for a first down.

This is what everyone thought it could look like when that trade went down. Mismatches everywhere. A combination of physicality, athleticism and incisive play designs that break a defense down physically, and then, mentally (see: Arizona defenders giving up on the second Kittle touchdown).

The day after the McCaffrey trade, I asked Dre Greenlaw — as he looked at McCaffrey a few lockers away — how do you defend everyone? How do you stop Kittle, Aiyuk, Samuel, McCaffrey, Mitchell, Juszcyk, even Jauan Jennings? How do you account for all of those players properly without getting an unfavorable matchup or trying to overcompensate on one of them?

Greenlaw laughed, shaking his head.

You don’t,” Greenlaw told KNBR. “I can’t wait to see it. I can’t wait to see it. I can’t wait to see it,” he said, standing up, increasingly hyped each time he repeated it.

We just saw it. It was a 38-10 drubbing that has the 49ers, at 6-4 and 4-0 in the division, atop the NFC West

Here’s a revelatory stat from Nick Wagoner on the effectiveness of the 49ers’ offense since McCaffrey’s arrival.

The offense has arrived. And the defense hasn’t left, either. They’ve survived the loss of Emmanuel Moseley, with Deommodore Lenoir quietly playing some fantastic ball on the outside.

Without Arik Armstead for seven weeks, Javon Kinlaw for eight weeks and Samson Ebukam for the last two, the defense has remained excellent, aside from two blips against the Falcons and Chiefs. Only the Cowboys, Broncos and Patriots allow fewer points per game than the 17.3 allowed by the 49ers (and the Patriots have played the Zach Wilson-led Jets twice in the past three weeks).

This doesn’t work without Jimmy Garoppolo, as those Wilson-led Jets have evidenced to a glaring degree over the last few days.

Garoppolo has played very well recently. He’s making most of the throws he usually does. His ability to deliver short-to-intermediate balls with excellent timing is a legitimate skill that he does at an elite level.

But what’s been different is that he’s not making the turnover-worthy plays that can be so backbreaking and that he’s so often plagued the 49ers with. Even more stunning than that, he’s making off-schedule plays each week.

He had arguably his best throw of the season last week when he bought time, rolled out and found Ray-Ray McCloud for a 39-yard completion. This week, he stepped up, saw a running lane, but found the better play, lofting a ball over the top to George Kittle for a 39-yard touchdown.

These are plays he hasn’t made in the past, at least not nearly with this level of consistency. The ability of the offensive line to buy him time has undoubtedly eased his nerves (he’s taken just one sack in the last two weeks).

When he doesn’t turn the ball over, this team wins (though they tend to win when he does turn it over, too). San Francisco is 19-15 in games when Garoppolo throws a pick. They are now 23-5 in games when he doesn’t.

Generally speaking, they don’t need him to be an explosive playmaker. He’s frustrated in his career because he has struggled to hit deep throws with any sort of consistency, but he’s at least taking those shots with more confidence at this juncture.

History has shown you can never fully trust Garoppolo. Steve Young — who’s hitching a ride home from Mexico on the team plane tonight — has consistently said he believes Shanahan himself doesn’t fully trust Garoppolo. The explicitly stated desire from Shanahan to move on from Garoppolo seems to be a fairly obvious indicator of that.

But even if that’s true, is it enough to keep the 49ers from winning this conference?

As a reminder, the NFC is… unserious.

The Philadelphia Eagles are the clear favorite, and should be taken seriously. They have an impressive defense, though their defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon seems to have an unhealthy obsession with nose tackles that seems problematic.

Their offense has plenty of weapons, with the real questions looming about whether Jalen Hurts can continue to improve, or whether some of his bad tendencies will re-emerge in the playoffs. They have enough legitimacy to be viewed as contenders, but they’re not nearly as menacing as the Bills or Chiefs.

The Minnesota Vikings? They got torched 40-3 this weekend by the Dallas Cowboys… who the 49ers beat in the playoffs last season. The Vikings’ quarterback is still Kirk Cousins, and San Francisco beat them badly in 2019. It still remains to be seen if the Cowboys’ offense can execute in the playoffs.

The Giants and Commanders don’t have enough at quarterback to be taken seriously, though no one took Eli Manning seriously, and Daniel Jones has a little bit of his folksy, fall-upwards-iness.

Aside from the Eagles, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seem like the only other viable threat, as ridiculous as that sounds (assuming they win the NFC South… which they will). They still have Tom Brady and his voodoo magic. Regardless of how disastrous they may look in the regular season, and Brady being 45, he is not someone you want to see in the playoffs.

This is all to say that, yes, the Cardinals are a dumpster fire, and this is a game the 49ers should absolutely be dominating. But at the start of this season, it’s the sort of game they wouldn’t have won so easily. They’ve taken a leap in a conference that’s not all that menacing.

If Garoppolo plays like he has been and Shanahan dials it up with all these weapons at his disposal, it doesn’t really matter who they face in the playoffs. They are physical, creative and talented on both sides of the ball with enough experience and athleticism to grind out games in January.

They still need to win the NFC West, with a December 14 matchup against Seattle that looms large. But if the 49ers play anywhere near this level — and there are more reasons than not to believe they will — then they’re the team to beat in the NFC.