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The Patriots, the 49ers, and the Pursuit of a Perfect Season

New England and San Francisco both rolled Sunday to stay unbeaten at the NFL’s midway point. What makes each team so special? And does either have a chance to run the table?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over the first month of the NFL season, two potential juggernauts emerged. One of them, the New England Patriots, was a familiar case—even if they were rolling on the strength of the most suffocating defense they’ve fielded in the Bill Belichick era rather than a Tom Brady–led offensive attack. The 49ers, though, were a different story. No one outside of the Bay Area predicted before the start of the season that the Niners would be a playoff team, let alone the most dangerous team in the NFC. Yet after a 51-13 blowout win over the Panthers on Sunday, San Francisco sits at 7-0 and looks like a surefire Super Bowl contender. Midway through the season, Kyle Shanahan’s team has proved that its dominance is just as real as that of the 8-0 Patriots, and neither team looks likely to slow down any time soon.

At the most basic level, the 49ers have crafted schemes on offense and defense that make them extremely difficult to play against. That may seem like an oversimplification, but San Francisco has added extra layers on both sides of the ball that are designed to confuse and frustrate opposing coaches. When Shanahan worked as a coordinator in Washington and Atlanta—and developed a reputation as one of the best young minds in football—his offenses relied on a system of zone running and play-action passes similar to the one his father, Mike, had developed during his time as the Broncos head coach. This year’s Niners still use play-action at one of the highest rates in the NFL—they’ve deployed it on 34.1 percent of Jimmy Garoppolo’s dropbacks, the fourth-highest percentage in the league—but Shanahan has also added multiple wrinkles that place extra stress on defenses.

Nearly every play the 49ers use incorporates some kind of misdirection. When Garoppolo hands the ball off, there’s often a faked swing pass, a blocker coming across the formation, or another kind of motion to draw the defense’s eyes. On Deebo Samuel’s 20-yard touchdown run in the third quarter on Sunday, the Niners lined up in a trips formation to the left, with Samuel as the slot receiver. Just before the snap, San Francisco sent recently acquired wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in jet motion to the right. That’s a fairly standard concept for any NFL offense. But rather than hand the ball off to Sanders or the running back, Samuel got the ball as he stepped inside. For good measure, Garoppolo and running back Tevin Coleman also feigned a pitch to the left to hold the defensive end. With all the moving parts to worry about, the Panthers didn’t lay a finger on Samuel as he scampered down the field for the score.

On the day, Coleman ran for 105 yards with three touchdowns on only 11 carries. Fellow running back Raheem Mostert had another 60 yards on nine attempts. Playing without their two starting tackles and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk, Shanahan and running game coordinator Mike McDaniel still overwhelmed the Panthers defense with a slew of disorienting designs; Carolina never stood a chance.

The Niners offense has impressed by staying afloat despite suffering a number of injuries, but the real strength of this team over the season’s first half has been the defense. San Francisco used most of its available resources this offseason to build up its pass rush, with additions like no. 2 draft pick Nick Bosa and $85 million man Dee Ford. With those two in the fold, the Niners came into Week 7 with the highest adjusted sack rate in the NFL, and tallied another seven sacks against Carolina. But what’s made San Francisco truly terrifying is how well the pass rush and coverage work together. Sunday’s sack total might make it seem like the Niners’ front four controlled the game, but the secondary forced Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen to hang on to the ball in the pocket all afternoon, and when he did let it fly, that group hauled in two of the team’s three interceptions on the day.

Coming into the season, the Niners’ defensive front—stocked with five former first-round picks—always had the potential to be great. The secondary was more of a question mark. But defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and first-year passing game coordinator Joe Woods have transformed the unit. With a dizzying combination of disguised coverages and hard-to-identify schemes, San Francisco has kept quarterbacks’ minds swimming all season. And just like they have on offense, the Niners have been able to overcome injuries to key players, like third-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (foot), who was playing the best football of his career before getting injured against the Steelers in Week 3. The Niners defense hasn’t missed a beat with backup cornerback Emmanuel Moseley in the lineup, though; he snagged his first interception of the season on an errant throw from Allen early in Sunday’s second quarter.

In almost any other year, the Niners defense would be considered the most dominant in the league. Coming into Week 8, San Francisco had a -39.1 percent defensive DVOA; that would be the second-best mark ever recorded for an entire season. Unfortunately for San Francisco, this season also features the best statistical defense the league has ever seen. Over New England’s first seven games, the Pats recorded an absurd -49.7 percent DVOA and allowed just 48 points. If the Patriots offense had never set foot on the field during that time, New England would still be 3-3-1. Think about that for a second. Entering Week 8, the Pats defense had been one of the most game-wrecking groups ever, and it continued that tour of destruction in Sunday’s 27-13 win over the Browns. The Patriots recorded another five sacks—bringing their season total to a league-leading 31—an interception, and a first-quarter fumble return for a touchdown. New England now has six non-offensive touchdowns on the season; that’s two more than the defense has allowed.

Much like the 49ers, the Patriots have built a unit where the pass rush and pass coverage work in perfect harmony. Led by cornerback Stephon Gilmore, New England has the strongest, deepest secondary in the NFL, and their abilities in man coverage have allowed Belichick to feel comfortable sending extra rushers after the quarterback. Linebacker Jamie Collins picked up another 1.5 sacks on Sunday after coming into Week 8 with 4.5 on the season. Through seven weeks, he led all linebackers with 14 pass pressures, and he’ll likely keep that standing after another huge game against Cleveland. Fellow linebacker Kyle Van Noy added 26 pressures of his own through seven games, and he was a menace all afternoon on Sunday.

New England’s offense hasn’t been the unstoppable machine we’ve seen in recent years; Brady would have recorded another ugly red zone interception on Sunday if cornerback Denzel Ward hadn’t dropped the ball. But with the way the Patriots defense has been playing, the offense doesn’t have to put up 30 points per game for New England to trample every other team in the AFC. Just like the Niners have done so far this season, the Patriots have created schemes that leave opponents with little recourse. It’s nearly impossible to move the ball against a defense that routinely sends five or six pass rushers and doesn’t leave itself vulnerable in coverage as a result.

At this point, there’s no reason to think these teams can’t keep up something close to this level of dominance for the rest of the season. After facing a cupcake-filled schedule so far, the Patriots have games against quality teams like the Ravens (Week 9), Eagles (Week 11), Cowboys (Week 12), Texans (Week 13), and Chiefs (Week 14) during the second half of the season. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that New England will be favored in all of them. San Francisco also has a back-loaded schedule that includes two games against the Seahawks (weeks 10 and 17) and matchups with the Packers (Week 12), Ravens (Week 13), Saints (Week 14), and Rams (Week 16). It would be a monumental feat for either of these teams to run the table, but looking at their schedules before the season, games against the Panthers and Browns certainly didn’t look like potential blowouts, either. Of the two, New England’s path seems more plausible, especially if it can make it to early December unscathed.

For the Patriots, historic greatness is nothing new. This year’s defense is on pace to set records just like the offense did in 2007 when New England went 16-0. But the Niners haven’t played this well in a long, long time. It may have taken a while for some to believe that San Francisco’s fresh start wasn’t a mirage, but it’s safe to say this team belongs in the same class as New England. At the halfway mark of the season, a Super Bowl clash between Brady and his old backup looks like it could be a real possibility. Belichick traded Garoppolo to the Niners rather than one of the other teams that inquired about him in part because he thought Shanahan would give the young QB the best chance to thrive. That trust has been proved right, and now both teams are on a collision course that could have them facing off in February.