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It’s Time to Get Excited About the 49ers, the Brash NFC Contender Hiding in Plain Sight

San Francisco embarrassed the Cleveland Browns on Monday night, and Nick Bosa got revenge for one of Baker Mayfield’s most famous moments

NFL: OCT 07 Browns at 49ers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In a signature moment of a legendary college career, Baker Mayfield capped an upset 31-16 win at Ohio State by taking the Oklahoma Sooners flag, sauntering around the Ohio State stadium, and then planting it at midfield. The move infuriated the Buckeyes players and their fans to the point Oklahoma “higher-ups” told him he needed to apologize. He did half-heartedly, though it would have been better to point out that people living in a town called Columbus have no right to get upset when someone else plants flags on their turf.

One of the Ohio State players who took particular umbrage with Mayfield’s mayhem was Nick Bosa. Two years later, Bosa got his revenge during the 49ers’ dominant 31-3 win against Cleveland on Monday Night Football. Bosa’s near-sack with seconds left in the second quarter sent the 49ers into halftime up 21-3 against the Browns, and Bosa did not hesitate to celebrate by mimicking Mayfield’s flag plant.

Not only did Bosa’s whooshing plant signal a long-sought-after revenge, but it also signaled a new era at the NFL level. For all of the shine the Cleveland Browns got this offseason—including at this website—Bosa and the unbeaten San Francisco 49ers look like a star-studded Super Bowl contender.

On the first play of the game, Cleveland superstar wideout Odell Beckham Jr. took an end-around handoff, reversed himself, and then completed a pass to Jarvis Landry. The Browns’ next completion came on the final play of the first quarter. San Francisco’s defense, led by Bosa and the five first-round picks that litter the team’s defensive line, dominated on Monday. Bosa, the no. 2 pick in this year’s draft and the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year, finished with two sacks and five quarterback hits, none more emphatic than his flag plant to end the half (Bosa, who entered the game with the second-highest pressure rate by Pro Football Focus, likely raised his figure on Monday). Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, the no. 7 pick in 2016 and perhaps the most anonymously excellent defender in football, finished with a sack, a forced fumble (recovered by Bosa), and a batted pass. That pass rush made the secondary’s job easier. Cornerback Richard Sherman picked off Mayfield on his first pass of Cleveland’s second drive, and the 49ers intercepted Mayfield again on Cleveland’s most promising drive of the game after his pass went through receiver Antonio Callaway’s hands and into the arms of cornerback K’Waun Williams. Mayfield was held to just eight completions on 22 attempts (36.4 percent) for 100 yards (4.5 yards per attempt) and zero touchdowns, with each of those numbers except the 22 attempts being career lows.

It was a magnificent example of San Francisco’s offseason plans coming to fruition. The 49ers intercepted just two passes in 2018, the fewest any team has picked off in a season in NFL history. General manager John Lynch gambled on a better pass rush having a bigger impact than a better secondary; he drafted Bosa at 2 and then traded for Chiefs pass rusher Dee Ford to invigorate their edge rush around fellow defensive linemen Buckner, 2017 no. 3 pick Solomon Thomas, and 2015 no. 17 pick Arik Armstead. It’s a draft capital investment on par with Jacksonville running out the most expensive position group of all time last year, and so far it has worked. San Francisco surpassed its 2018 interception total in Week 1 against Tampa Bay, it is tied with the Packers for the second most interceptions (seven) of any team even though it had a bye last week, and its net yards per pass attempt allowed is the fifth lowest in football.

“It’s the same message we’ve been sending all year,” Bosa told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the game. “We’re a championship-level defense.”

As impressive as the defense was, San Francisco’s offense may have been better. The 49ers were in control throughout, as they gained 446 yards, scored four touchdowns in the first three quarters, and held the ball for nearly 38 minutes. They needed just one play to separate from the Browns, with running back Matt Breida breaking an 83-yard touchdown on the 49ers’ first snap.

Breida finished with 114 yards on 11 carries plus the touchdown, but he wasn’t the only 49ers back to impress. San Francisco’s Tevin Coleman returned from an ankle injury with 16 rushes for 97 yards and a score, looking every bit the shifty back whom Kyle Shanahan shelled out $5.3 million guaranteed for in free agency this March. San Francisco’s third and fourth backs, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr., round out the deepest group in the league, and having that many capable players in the backfield allows the 49ers to diversify their run game in all sorts of fun ways. A double-reverse to speedster receiver Marquise Goodwin gained 15 yards and a first down and a sweep tossing the ball to tight end George Kittle went for 18 yards and a first down. Those plays were so effective that simply motioning those players afterward created seams for Coleman to run up the middle, including a fourth-and-1 conversion that led to his touchdown on the following play.

Entering the fourth quarter, the 49ers had more rushing yards (244) than the Browns had total yards (173). San Fran finished with 275 yards on the ground on 40 carries (6.9 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns.

Kicking is a surprising problem for San Francisco; Robbie Gould missed two field goals and had a third kick blocked (the first time he’s missed three kicks in his career). But the biggest mystery with this 49ers team remains their passing game. Jimmy Garoppolo completed 20 of 29 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns, a small yardage total indicative of the team frequently getting the ball on a short field. There’s no doubt that Kittle, who finished with 70 yards on six catches and a touchdown, is among the game’s best, but the rest of the 49ers’ young receiving corps is still growing. Second-year receiver Dante Pettis, expected to be the no. 1 receiver entering the year, had just one catch for 11 yards. This year’s second-rounder, Deebo Samuel, had one catch for 3 yards. Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne combined for five catches for 65 yards. Garoppolo is not an experienced passer—he has fewer career starts than Mayfield—and when the 49ers need to play catch-up with the passing game, he and his even less experienced receiving corps may struggle. If anything is an indication of how dire San Francisco’s receiving is, the absence of Kyle Juszczyk, who left the game with a knee injury, could seriously disrupt their versatility. Trading for Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs or Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, both rumored to be available, could immediately alleviate all of these concerns.

The Browns won’t have their concerns alleviated anytime soon. All of their great players failed to deliver on Monday. Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a key pass while wide open in the first half and fumbled a punt return late in the game. Mayfield had his worst game as a pro and continued his red zone struggles this season (25 percent completion rate inside the 20 entering this game) after throwing 20 touchdowns and no picks in the red zone last year. Cleveland sacked Garoppolo twice but had no answers for the run game devised by Kyle Shanahan, which was downright devious. Usually defenders fall for fake runs while quarterbacks pass, but Garoppolo was faking out defenders with pump fakes when the ball had already been handed off.

What was clear on Monday was that the Browns played directly into a trap the 49ers will set for their opponents all year: gain an early lead, grind their opponents to a nub with a running game that goes four running backs deep and is the best designed in the league, and then let their elite defensive line harass quarterbacks trying to play catch-up. It will be tougher for the 49ers when their opponents don’t cough up the ball so willingly and so early, which will be the case against the divisional rival Rams (3-2) and the Seahawks (4-1). But right now the 4-0 49ers are the unbeaten team atop two divisional rivals and, with one defensive celebration, look like they have begun a new era in their franchise history. Don’t expect any apologies for the flag-planting this time.