MNF features the last undefeated team in the NFC
The San Francisco 49ers face the Cleveland Browns Monday night as the last undefeated team in the NFC. A 3-0 start, their first since 1998, has been keyed by the old-school tenets of football: a 1-2 punch of a rushing attack and outstanding defense, forcing turnovers and piling up points. It’s helped a recovering Jimmy Garoppolo get his feet wet at quarterback, kept healthy by an offensive line allowing a total of just two sacks in three games.
But the 49ers’ future success is far from certain given that the first three teams they beat have a combined overall record of 3-9. Their NFC West division features the playoff-caliber Seahawks at 4-1 and defending conference champion Rams at 3-2. Four games against those teams lie ahead along with matchups against the Packers, Ravens, Saints, and Panthers.
This Monday night contest is no cakewalk, either. The Browns enter Week 5 atop a wobbly AFC North, back to 2-2 after an ugly start. Running back Nick Chubb has covered up some up-and-down play from Baker Mayfield, sitting fourth in the NFL with 398 yards rushing. His ability to pierce the Ravens defense made the difference in last week’s 40-25 victory that was easily Cleveland’s most impressive game this season.
Can they keep it up with a second straight upset on the road? Or will the 49ers use the rest from their bye week to TKO arguably their best opponent thus far in 2019?
Cleveland at San Francisco
Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 7 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: 49ers -4
Three Things To Watch
1. Nick Chubb vs. 49ers rush defense
Chubb had a breakout game last week against the Ravens, becoming the key difference maker as he rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns. That included an 88-yard touchdown sprint that’s the longest run from scrimmage in the NFL this season.
But now, he runs up against a 49ers defense defined by early success against the run. No running back has gained more than 75 yards against the Niners this season, and they have yet to give up a rushing touchdown. James Conner of the Steelers, who put up similar numbers to Chubb's in 2018, gained just 43 yards on 13 carries in Week 3.
2. Mayfield must make the most of his opportunities
If the 49ers run defense remains successful, that puts pressure on quarterback Baker Mayfield to be the difference-maker. And for Mayfield, the jury is still out in a 2019 campaign that’s seen him stumble to a middling quarterback rating of 77.2. He hasn’t thrown more than a single touchdown pass in any game, and his six interceptions are tied for second in the NFL behind Jared Goff.
A shaky offensive line hasn’t helped, although last week, they held the Ravens to only one sack. They’ll need to maintain that protection against a middling 49ers pass rush (3.0 sacks/gm) to have a chance.
How can Mayfield make a difference? Perhaps his leadership alone can help keep the Browns in check offensively. But head coach Jimmy Kitchens needs to clean up a defense that’s been sloppy.
The Browns' penalty situation has been improving in recent weeks, but their 56 in four games are twice as many as opponents during the same time period. They have piled up a whopping 161 more penalty yards than opponents, keeping drive after drive alive on defense with silly mistakes. The 49ers will take full advantage if the Browns come out and play sloppy.
3. Will Garoppolo add a missing piece to the 49ers' offense?
On the flip side, the 49ers have produced just enough offense from Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert to give Garoppolo a chance to breathe. Their 175 rush yards per game rank second in the NFL heading into Week 5; Cleveland’s defense ranks just 21st against the run. So it’s clear what the gameplan will be this Monday night.
That said, Garoppolo needs to improve upon his 2019 performance to date. Costly turnovers against the Steelers (two interceptions) nearly cost them the game and leave the 49ers at -1 in turnover margin for the year. Tight end George Kittle is off to a respectable start, but no receiver on this team has had more than 86 yards receiving in a game this season.
The Browns come in hot and have reignited their playoff hopes after flaming out for much of the first three weeks. But the 49ers, fresh off a bye week, should do just enough offensively while creating the turnovers needed to keep the Browns offense in check.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Browns 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.