San Francisco 49ers

No more argument: Why beating the Browns would elevate the 49ers to NFL’s elite

The 49ers are holding firm.

They’re not buying into the excitement running through the fan base spurred by their 3-0 start, entering Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns as one of three undefeated teams left with the Patriots and Chiefs.

The cliches this week have been rampant. If you ask players, they’ll tell you their approach hasn’t changed. They’re taking things one week at a time. They’re preparing for Cleveland just like they did before their victories over the Buccaneers, Bengals and Steelers. They haven’t accomplished anything yet — and so on.

But that doesn’t mean some of the outside doubt hasn’t seeped into the locker room.

“Everybody’s going to have an impression of us after this game,” rookie pass rusher Nick Bosa said. “We want it to be a 4-0, good impression. Opposed to a ‘fake undefeated team’ that people are kind of saying now.”

Lackluster opponents thus far

Most observers would say they’ll reserve judgment of the 49ers until they beat a quality opponent. The facts back up that reasoning. Their three wins have come against teams with a combined 3-9 record who didn’t play in the postseason last year. And the opposing quarterbacks — Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton and Mason Rudolph — have never won a playoff game.

On the other hand, the 49ers are third in the league in scoring (32 points per game), fourth in yardage (421), third in total defense (283) and eighth in opponents’ scoring (18.0). The advanced metric DVOA compiled by Football Outsiders has San Francisco as the No. 2 team in the NFL, thanks largely to their defense led by the talented defensive front that could be among the best in the league.

Beating the Cleveland Browns, whom many considered a playoff-caliber team coming into the year, would change the argument in the 49ers’ favor, particularly on the national stage of “Monday Night Football.”

They played on Monday night twice last season, entering their Week 6 loss to the Packers with a 1-4 record. They played the 2-6 New York Giants a month later with a 2-7 record and lost on their home field. And San Francisco has lost at least 10 games in each of the past four seasons. They’ve picked second, ninth and third in the last three drafts.

Suffice to say, the national audience has plenty of reasons to wait to crown these 49ers until they accomplish more. Even coach Kyle Shanahan following the Pittsburgh win evoked his 2015 Falcons that started 5-0 before missing the playoffs at 8-8.

“So that doesn’t mean much,” he said of the undefeated record.

That will have to change if Shanahan’s team beats the Browns.

It would mark the first time since 1990 San Francisco began a season 4-0. The franchise has gone to the playoffs 13 time since then but never won its first four games.

Yes, it might be putting the cart before the horse, but the 49ers would have to be taken seriously with a win Monday. Not just as a possible playoff team, but possible winners of the NFC West, which they haven’t accomplished since 2012, when they went to the Super Bowl.

“We’ve won our first three games, but that makes me feel good about those three games,” Shanahan said. “But there’s a long way to go in the season so it doesn’t do much for me just starting 3-0.”

Rebuilding under Shanahan

The 49ers entered the 2019 having gone 10-22 combined during Shanahan’s first two seasons. There were expected hurdles when he was first hired in 2017, namely, not having a franchise quarterback and needing a complete rebuild of roster. They expected to take a drastic step forward last season, but Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury derailed than plan.

“We knew when we came here it was going to be tough just where we were at when we got here, we knew that would take some time,” Shanahan said.

“We expected the first year to go a little bit how it did, not exactly how it did. And we knew the second year would be tough, too. We expected to win more games than we did, but that is how we expected. We expected to be more competitive in year three and we do feel like we are right now. Being more competitive still doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to play good football. It’s always tough and it’s going to be really tough Monday.”

Garoppolo will make his first career start on Monday Night Football. In many ways, his status mirrors his team’s.

He’s shown promise, but remains unproven over the long run. He’s been in the NFL for six seasons, yet Monday’s game will be just 14th career start, while Baker Mayfield will be making start No. 18 for the Browns.

A good showing against Cleveland’s defense, featuring the uber-talented pass rusher Myles Garrett going against rookie sixth-round pick Justin Skule, could go a long way toward grouping Garoppolo with other top-tier young quarterbacks.

“It’ll be exciting, a lot of juice,” Garoppolo said. “Levi’s (Stadium) was rocking last time when the Steelers came and wouldn’t expect anything less from the Faithful. It’ll be a fun atmosphere, that’s for sure.”

A win Monday will have the 49ers in great shape heading into their first division game of the year. They’ll have a short turnaround for a road game against the Los Angeles Rams, who will have extra time to stew on back-to-back losses to the Buccaneers and Seahawks on Thursday night.

After the Rams, the next three games at Washington (0-4), home to Carolina (2-2) and on the road for the Thursday night Halloween game against the Cardinals (0-3-1) all seem winnable.

Then comes a the next Monday night game hosting the Seahawks (3-1) on November 11, which could be the most meaningful game played in November since 2013.

At that point, as division contenders everyone would take seriously, it would be much harder to talk in platitudes like this week against the Browns.

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