Sunday, November 13 vs Los Angeles Chargers, 8:20 PM ET/5:20 PM PT
This is not a fun year to draw the AFC West as your opposite number. While the Chiefs have controlled the division for the last several years, each of the other teams in the group has clearly set their sights on going after Kansas City.
None seem more poised to possibly unseat Mahomes and the Chiefs than the Chargers and third-year quarterback Justin Herbert, who has already had two solid NFL seasons and is looking to make the leap into the stratosphere of elite quarterbacks.
The Chargers missed out on the playoffs last season due to a late-game coaching mistake in their final game against the Raiders, yes, but also because their defense didn’t live up to expectations set by their offense, a sad statement since head coach Brandon Staley was a defensive coordinator before taking the Chargers’ gig.
While their offense was a top-5 unit in terms of scoring, yards, and passing, the defense was near the bottom of the league in those categories and was especially bad in stopping the run. Their offense managed to put up 474 points in 17 games. The defense gave up 459 points. Not exactly a recipe for success.
So they added to a defense that already featured EDGE rusher Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James, trading for EDGE rusher Khalil Mack from Chicago and signing former Patriots’ cornerback JC Jackson, one of the most sought-after players in this offseason’s free agency class.
The retool that began with the drafting of Herbert seems to be complete. Now it’s time for the Chargers to see if they can take the next step and truly contend for a title.
The timing of this game, however, really works out well for the 49ers. They play in Los Angeles, a short trip, in Week 8 on Sunday afternoon followed by their bye week, and then don’t have to worry about the Chargers until Sunday Night Football in Week 10.
This should give Kyle Shanahan and his staff plenty of time to game plan for Herbert and the Chargers. And while the SNF matchup means we’ll get a lot of talk about the Bosa Brothers, it should also make for must-see-TV and a game I think the 49ers can win, even if it’s a close one.
Prediction: 49ers win a close one
Monday, November 21, at Arizona Cardinals (in Mexico City), 8:15 ET/5:15 PT
The Cardinals had a bizarre 2021 season, jumping out to a 9-2 start before, as they’ve done pretty much like clockwork for each of the last few years, collapsing in the season’s final stretch after their bye week.
Arizona finished 11-6, good enough for second in the highly touted NFC West, but were annihilated, 34-11, by their division foes and eventual Super Bowl champions Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card game.
Add yet another late season underperformance to a turbulent offseason that featured an often disgruntled quarterback in Kyler Murray and the six-game suspension of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and you’ve got the makings of what could be a rough 2022 for the team from the desert.
Of course, the 49ers will not miss out on Hopkins, with this Week 11 contest coming well after the wideout’s suspension will have been served.
The 49ers should be eyeing a reversal of fortunes from the last few seasons over the Cardinals, a team the Niners have lost to seven out of ten times since Kyle Shanahan took over as head coach in 2017, including sweeps in 2017, 2018, and 2021.
As constructed, and given the tumult in the building, the 49ers should be able to grab a victory.
The Monday Night Football contest in November will take place in Mexico City, and while the Cardinals will technically be the home team for the contest, 49ers fans travel well, as evidenced most recently by the playoff games against Dallas and Green Bay last season, as well as multiple trips to LA’s SoFi Stadium since it opened. So expect it to be a very pro-49ers crowd.
Prediction: 49ers win in a classic NFC West clash
Sunday, November 27 vs New Orleans Saints, 4:25 PM ET/1:25 PM PT
For some reason, when ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky ranked his top five teams in the NFC on May 2, he included both the Philadelphia Eagles (at no.5) and the New Orleans Saints (at no.3).
Respectfully: this makes no sense.
The Saints will be a feisty team in the NFC this year, maybe, because they just don’t have the offensive firepower they’ve had in recent years with Drew Brees at quarterback.
Speaking of quarterbacks, the Saints are a pretty clear example of a team that has a lot of quarterbacks but doesn’t really have one that stands out as the guy who can take this team to the next level.
Ostensibly, Jameis Winston is back to be the starter, but he’s coming off a major injury and has a history of being spectacular while also giving the ball away at record levels. Taysom Hill is still there, but any misgivings the organization has had about his ability as an actual quarterback should have shipped out when former head coach Sean Payton did. They signed Andy Dalton to a free agent contract that includes a $3 million cap hit that becomes dead money if he’s cut. And all the while they still have former Notre Dame signal-caller Ian Book, who played (poorly) in a loss to the Dolphins in Week 16 last year.
On top of all that, the question marks remain about their skill position players outside of wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has played in seven games over the last two seasons, all of which came in 2020, and running back Alvin Kamara, who continues to show why giving massive contracts to running backs is a dangerous game (and still has pending legal trouble from an issue in Las Vegas after the Pro Bowl).
So again, respectfully: how is this team among the NFC’s elite?
This is a team the 49ers should be able to beat, especially since it’s a home game.
Prediction: 49ers win
Sunday, December 4 vs Miami Dolphins, 4:05 PM ET/1:05 PM PT
The Dolphins certainly have the look of a team that wants to push for contention in not just the AFC East but the AFC at large, although that last part will be difficult given how deep the AFC is coming into this season.
They began by bringing in former 49ers’ offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel to be their head coach, hoping he’ll bring with him a version of the Shanahan offense that has become a staple in many offensive schemes in the NFL. Miami followed that up by trading for Tyreek Hill and signing him to a massive extension, as well as bringing in guys McDaniel has familiarity with such as running back Raheem Mostert and wide receiver Trent Sherfield.
The transactions look like a team trying to build its offense to look like the 49ers have over the last few seasons, including signing a fullback in Alec Ingold.
But the elephant in the room remains: will quarterback Tua Tagovailoa be able to stay on the field and, if he does so, can he be efficient enough with all his new toys on offense, which already included wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and tight end Mike Gesicki.
If Tua is average at best, the Dolphins will be a good team. If he struggles, then newly signed Teddy Bridgewater will be waiting in the wings to step in and do what Tagovailoa can’t.
This is the second of three straight home games for the 49ers and while the Dolphins look to be a team primed to make some noise, the quarterback question is one that is far too up in the air.