The First Read, Week 3: 49ers well-positioned in topsy-turvy NFC with Jimmy Garoppolo back at QB

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 3 of the 2022 NFL season, including:

— A great sign for one of the league’s top contenders.

— Three biggest risers after Week 2.

— Which player is entering the way-too-early MVP conversation?

But first, a look at a team in position to flourish without its QB1 …

If there is a silver lining in watching your young franchise quarterback carted off the field with a season-ending ankle injury, the San Francisco 49ers have it in backup Jimmy Garoppolo. There shouldn’t be optimism around that franchise because of some morose thought that Trey Lance’s exit on Sunday created an opportunity for the more experienced player to take the field again. There should be hope because the NFC is a mess right now. That seasoned quarterback play the 49ers are about to receive should be more than enough to vault them into an advantageous position.

We’ll see if the Philadelphia Eagles or Minnesota Vikings stay hot in their Monday night matchup, but the one thing we can say about the NFC through nearly two full weeks of football is that it’s incredibly unpredictable. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are injury-riddled, the Green Bay Packers are offensively challenged, the Dallas Cowboys won’t have their starting quarterback for at least three more games and the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams almost blew a 25-point lead to the lowly Atlanta Falcons after being blown out by Buffalo in their season opener. This is what Garoppolo is walking into with the 49ers. The four division champions from a season ago all have their own respective flaws to resolve before we’ve officially moved into fall.

San Francisco is in a different spot. It has a Super Bowl-caliber roster as well, one that could have been bolstered by the obvious potential in Lance’s potent right arm and mobility. We’ll never know what could have happened if Lance had matured this season, but this much is true: The 49ers are far more dangerous now that Garoppolo is running the show at a time when there’s so much conference upheaval. This is still the man who led San Francisco to last season’s NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl appearance in the 2019 season.

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Everyone knows what the 49ers are getting with Garoppolo. He’s going to manage the game, limit mistakes and do just enough to inspire his critics to complain about his skill set. And you know what? That’s fine. It’s great to have Aaron Rodgers, but it doesn’t mean as much if his receivers stink. The same holds true for Tom Brady if half his offense is sidelined with injuries, and for Matthew Stafford if he’s throwing 75 percent of his passes to Cooper Kupp.

The 49ers beat the Cowboys and Packers in last season’s playoffs. They had a six-game winning streak over the Rams until falling to Los Angeles in the NFC title game. Garoppolo was a major part of that success, and he’d likely be playing elsewhere by now if offseason shoulder surgery hadn’t curtailed his options to be traded. The 49ers got a steal when they restructured his contract to make him the backup, and now he has the perfect opportunity to market himself for next year’s bidders.

The sad part in all of this was watching Lance riding a cart toward another year of uncertainty after breaking his ankle in the first quarter of Sunday’s 27-7 win over Seattle. There were already skeptics wondering how his limited playing experience would affect his development. Lance only played in one game as a redshirt sophomore at North Dakota State (the team played the rest of its season in the spring due to COVID-19) and then attempted just 71 passes as a rookie. There will be even more questions after a third consecutive year with little action. Lance revealed some predictable growing pains when he looked overwhelmed in a Week 1 loss to Chicago. With the second-year QB out for the season, the 49ers have to be hoping this setback doesn’t dampen what seems like a bright career.

This is also why San Francisco held onto Garoppolo and refused to simply give him away. In a perfect world, Lance would be healthy and maturing, and Garoppolo would have been available in the event of a manageable injury situation. It was a sensible approach by a smart franchise. They have been too close to a championship the last few years to leave too much to chance.

The 49ers now get to see how their team responds with its former leader back in charge. We’ve all heard plenty about the respect Garoppolo commands in that building and the love he inspired through his play. Well, there’s about to be more of that coming in the very near future. That’s because the quarterback who supposedly was holding the 49ers back is currently well positioned to take them where they ultimately want to go.

HOT READS

Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.

1) Chiefs’ defense ahead of schedule: This is normally the time of year when we’re lamenting the sorry state of Kansas City’s defense. It’s notorious for starting slowly, generating all sorts of criticism and then finding a way to improve down the stretch under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. That’s not the case this year. The main reason Kansas City sits atop the much-celebrated AFC West right now — after winning a tough Thursday night game with the Los Angeles Chargers — is that defense. It’s younger, faster and more opportunistic, as proven by the game-changing, 99-yard interception return for a touchdown by rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson in the Week 2 victory. That isn’t to say this group is dominant yet. It was fairly quiet in the first three quarters of that contest. But it exploded in the fourth quarter with key stops and harassed Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, who sustained a rib cartilage injury with just over five minutes remaining in the game. Couple that effort with the way the Chiefs overwhelmed Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray in a Week 1 blowout win, and you can see the danger here. The AFC West might be stacked, but the Chiefs have jumped out to an early lead because they are a better overall team so far.

2) Bills had better beware: The Buffalo Bills opened the NFL season by blowing out the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams on the road. What the Bills do against the Miami Dolphins in Week 3 likely will say even more about how great they can be this year. The Dolphins are very much for real. In a Week 2 filled with crazy comebacks — three teams had overcome a fourth-quarter deficit of at least 13 points heading into the Monday night double-header — Miami produced the wildest finish in Sunday’s 42-38 comeback win over Baltimore. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa finally produced his signature moment (469 yards and six touchdown passes), while wide receivers Tyreek Hill (190 receiving yards and two scores) and Jaylen Waddle (171 receiving yards and two scores) went berserk. That contest turned the Week 3 Buffalo-Miami game into a must-see event. The Bills are the most talented team in football, and their quarterback, Josh Allen, is the favorite to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award. They also outscored the Dolphins, 61-11, in two games last season (including a 35-0 beatdown in Miami). That ain’t happening again. This game just transformed from one more opportunity for Buffalo to roll through a lesser opponent into a legit AFC East showdown.

3) Colts can’t make this stuff up: Someday the Indianapolis Colts will win a game in Jacksonville again. They might even start a season without stumbling out of the gate and digging the kind of hole that imperils their playoff chances early in the season. Until that happens, we’ll continue shaking our heads at what takes place with this team at this time of year. Jacksonville just might end up being the most improved squad in the NFL in 2022. That still doesn’t explain how overwhelmed the Colts looked in a 24-0 loss on Sunday. You can talk all you want about who wasn’t there for Indianapolis, a list that included top receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard. That shouldn’t create a 24-point difference, not when the team you’re playing knocked you out of the playoff race in last year’s season finale and now owns an eight-game home win streak in this series. To be blunt, it feels like the problems in Indianapolis are bigger than one loss revealed. The AFC South should be theirs for the taking. Instead, two of the worst teams in the league last season have given them fits in division games (the Colts overcame a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie with Houston in Week 1). This was supposed to be a team on the rise after plugging Matt Ryan in at quarterback. It’s currently hard to imagine a time when they’ve looked worse under head coach Frank Reich.

THREE UP

There was plenty of credit to go around after Dallas beat Cincinnati in its first game without injured quarterback Dak Prescott. Parsons should be right at the top of the list. The man is flat-out unblockable right now, as the Bengals’ offensive line discovered after he posted two sacks and five quarterback hits in the Cowboys’ 20-17 victory. Parsons already has four sacks this year, and he’s on a flat-out sprint toward Defensive Player of the Year honors. You want to know how Dallas, a team left for dead a week ago, can stay afloat without Prescott? Just let this guy keep wrecking offensive game plans. 

The Jets got their biggest win in years — and certainly in the Robert Saleh era — by sticking with this 37-year-old backup quarterback. There was ample reason to think Saleh should turn to the younger Mike White to lead the team as starting quarterback Zach Wilson continues to recover from knee surgery. Instead, Saleh doubled down on Flacco after a deflating Week 1 loss and was rewarded immensely. Flacco produced a 307-yard, four-touchdown effort in helping the Jets overcome a 13-point deficit in the final two minutes of a 31-30 win. It’s wise to not get too crazy about the Jets suddenly getting hot under Flacco. But he did show poise in the face of adversity, and that will help his younger teammates develop more confidence in tight situations moving forward.

It’s hard to identify a more intense receiver in the league than this guy. St. Brown plays every game with a feisty attitude that is indicative of the identity the Detroit Lions are cultivating. The second-year standout had 184 total yards (116 receiving) and two scores in Sunday’s win over Washington. The Lions benefitted from strong performances from several players — rookie defensive end Aidan Hutchinson had three sacks, for one — but it’s clear St. Brown has become a reliable go-to guy for this offense.

THREE DOWN

It was bad enough that Tua Tagovailoa produced a career effort against Baltimore. What made it worse was that he did most of his damage after the Ravens led by 21 points in the second half. The Ravens are once again dealing with issues on the back end — cornerback Marlon Humphrey didn’t finish Sunday’s game, and cornerback Kyle Fuller was lost to a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 — and communication breakdowns were a major problem in both long touchdown receptions by Tyreek Hill. The Ravens came into the season looking to reclaim their status as an elite defense. Sunday was what you call taking two steps back.

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Is he going to make it through this season? There wasn’t much optimism brimming around the Carolina Panthers, and their current 0-2 start is only magnifying how hard it is for this team to win games. Oh, they’ve come close. But Rhule is relying on quarterback Baker Mayfield to generate some magic that just hasn’t happened so far. With more tough opponents coming in the next five weeks — including the Saints, 49ers, Rams and Buccaneers — Rhule’s current nine-game losing streak could get a lot worse.  

It’s pretty hard to make this list after a win, but Hackett earned this spot. He spent the early part of last week trying to explain his decision and then saying he was wrong to call for a 64-yard field goal in the final seconds of a Week 1 loss to Seattle, a decision that drew heated scrutiny because he could’ve given quarterback Russell Wilson the opportunity to make at least one more play on a potential game-winning drive. The Broncos then redefined the phrase “winning ugly” on Sunday with a combination of penalties, time-management issues and more inconsistent offense in their 16-9 victory over Houston. This isn’t an attempt to crucify Hackett after two games. It’s only a way of pointing out the obvious. He has a Super Bowl-caliber roster, and the team has new owners who were not in place when he got the job. His coaching needs to improve in a hurry.

SCOUT’S READ

One question answered by an unnamed front office source.

Is there too much happening around Tom Brady — from injuries on offense to his personal life — for him to continue thriving?

NFC PERSONNEL DIRECTOR: “With most quarterbacks, you’d expect the injuries to be a problem. But if you look at his time in New England, they still often operated as a well-oiled machine with him at quarterback because their reserves fit the system. They weren’t always the most talented squads when he was there but they kept winning because of the way he plays. He offsets player deficiencies and creates an awareness of how they have to win and he’s brought the same qualities to Tampa. Tom has never had a problem with stubbornness. If he had to win by throwing 40 times or running 40 times, he’s always been more in tune with his team and the individual parts than anyone. It’s what makes the Bucs dangerous and why in New England so many guys came out of nowhere to make names for themselves. As for the personal life stuff, I don’t know enough about the details of all that. All I know is that no opponent is going into a contest against him believing he’ll be impacted by it. If anything, they’ll expect him to use it as more motivation. You can’t ever count him out, regardless of the situation.”

MVP WATCH

A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 3 (odds courtesy of FanDuel are current as of 4 p.m. ET on Sept. 19):

Odds: +380

Weeks in Top 5: 2

Next game: vs. Titans | Monday, Sept. 19

Odds: +460

Weeks in Top 5: 2

Next game: at Colts | Sunday, Sept. 25

Odds: +1000

Weeks in Top 5: 2

Next game: vs. Jaguars | Sunday, Sept. 25

Odds: +1200

Weeks in Top 5: 2

Next game: at Patriots | Sunday, Sept. 25

Odds: +1800

Weeks in Top 5: 1

Next game: vs. Bills | Sunday, Sept. 25

EXTRA POINT

My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over 49ers.

Previous picks …

  • Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
  • Week 1: Bills over Packers

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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