Sunday, October 9 at Carolina Panthers, 4:00 PM ET/ 1:05 PM PT
The Panthers are an NFL team stuck in purgatory.
Carolina has some interesting pieces, especially on defense, with players like cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and CJ Henderson, EDGE rusher Brain Burns, and safety Jeremy Chinn. There are even things to like about their offense, including running back Christian McCaffery (even if he can’t stay on the field) alongside wideouts Robbie Anderson and DJ Moore.
And yet, there remains the quarterback issue, one that is one of the direr in the league.
Sam Darnold is set to return, probably as the odds-on favorite to start Week 1, but he was largely ineffective in 12 games last season, throwing for just over 2500 yards and completing under 60% of his passes. His $18.5 million cap hit due to the 5th year option the Panthers picked up before he played a snap for them means he’s on the team one way or another.
Behind him are PJ Walker, who filled in for Darnold for five games last season but wasn’t any better for the Panthers, and two rookies – 2022 third-round pick Matt Corral out of Ole Miss and Davis Cheek, an undrafted free agent out of Elon – neither of which will inspire much hope for the 2022 season, even if Corral might have promise down the road.
And then of course there’s the Jimmy Garoppolo question, as the Panthers remain a team who could be in play for the 49ers’ quarterback. The conundrum there would be surrounding Darnold, who would be set to be raking in his massive salary while likely sitting on the bench, and the need for Carolina to retain three signal-callers in order to keep Corral around.
This is all topped off by the fact that head coach Matt Rhule is on maybe the NFL’s hottest hot seat and needs to win now in a division currently owned by Tom Brady and the Bucs. It’ll be a miracle if the Panthers aren’t at or near the cellar of this division.
All this to say: if the 49ers don’t win this, particularly with the benefit of it not being a 10 AM PT time game, it’s bad news.
Prediction: 49ers win big
Sunday, October 16 at Atlanta Falcons, 1:00 PM ET/10:00 AM PT
If there is a saving grace for the Carolina Panthers, it’s that the Atlanta Falcons also play in their division and they seem to be going about the plan at quarterback in a similar manner.
Atlanta shipped longtime starter, Matt Ryan, to the Colts this offseason and opted to bring in Marcus Mariota as a short-term bridge option while drafting former Cincinnatti QB Desmond Ridder in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft to be their quarterback of the future.
On paper, it looks a lot smarter than what the Panthers are doing, since Mariota’s contract will either work as a backup contract in either year if Ridder wins the job this year or can be moved on from with massive cap savings next year if the former Titan proves a surplus to requirements in 2023.
The rest of the roster is pretty bleak, however, in spite of a few bright spots. Those include their last two first-round draft picks, former Florida tight end Kyle Pitts and USC wideout Drake London. Outside of that, skill players are especially thin on offense, even if Cordarrell Patterson is back after a breakout season in 2021.
Their defense, which was among the worst in the NFL last season, doesn’t stand to look much better, although cornerback AJ Terrell, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, and linebacker Deion Jones are still here.
The fight for the bottom of the NFC South will be between Atlanta and Carolina, and it’s fortunate the 49ers get to see them both in 2022.
In spite of the long east coast road trip, the 49ers should be able to stay nearby and set themselves up for yet another win to start the season.
Prediction: 49ers win big
Sunday, October 23 vs Kansas City Chiefs, 4:25 PM ET/1:25 PM PT
To be clear, the Chiefs are still among the AFC’s elite teams and are among the favorites to represent their conference in the Super Bowl and win a second championship within five years.
But that doesn’t mean they’ve not seen a noticeable deprecation in the quality of their team since last season. The departures of players like wideout Tyreek Hill and safety Tyrann Mathieu will hurt them, especially when you consider that Hill’s replacements are JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, two good but not great pass-catching options.
They still have All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, of course, oh, and some quarterback named Mahomes. That alone will be enough to make them contenders.
The 49ers benefit from the Chiefs having to come to Santa Clara for this one, a place that Kansas City has played in just one time, a 2014 contest that was notable as Alex Smith’s return to play the 49ers, a game he lost to Colin Kaepernick and the Niners 22-17 early in that season.
Still, all good things must come to an end, and after a long stretch of games (and wins), this could be the first major stumble of the 49ers’ season, albeit to a very good team.
Prediction: Chiefs win a close one
Sunday, October 30 at Los Angeles Rams, 4:25 PM ET/1:25 PM PT
The 49ers, surprisingly, get their division foes out of the way before the bye week, leaving two games against the Cardinals and one against the Seahawks to complete their NFC West schedule.
Having already predicted a win for the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Week 4 on Monday Night Football, I could see this one, as with the first game, going either way.
For now, it’s best to predict yet another close and exciting game, although this one going the other direction than the first matchup did.
Still, a 6-2 record heading into the Week 9 bye is not a bad way to get rolling.
Prediction: Rams win a close one