February 24, 2024
The 49ers' perfect 2023 start leaves only one question: Will it also have a perfect end?

All that preseason hype for the 49ers looks justified.

Yes, the team has only played one regular-season game, but what a game it was.

The 49ers didn’t just beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-7 Sunday, they smacked their opponents around.

Brock Purdy threw two touchdowns to Brandon Aiyuk, Christian McCaffrey scored on a 65-yard run, and the Niners’ defense forced Pittsburgh to go three-and-out on their first five series, giving San Francisco a 20-0 lead that was never challenged.

At one point in the first half, the Niners had out-gained the Steelers 231 yards to 1.

If you watch college football, you’ve seen this type of game before: It was the big, blue-chip school taking on the small, lower-division regional college.

But instead of Alabama against Southeast Louisiana State, it was two professional teams in the NFL’s era of parity.

The Niners entered this campaign expecting to have the best defense in the NFL and one of the league’s most talented offenses. No one can argue with those designations following Sunday.

Both units entered the season fully primed. It made the team look like it was playing a video game on easy mode.

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There’s a long, long way to go — 16 more games, plus the playoffs — but the Niners showed on Sunday that their best is peerless.

“I think it was exactly how we wanted to come out,” said linebacker Fred Warner, who had eight tackles and two pass breakups. “[There] was an emphasis on us, in past seasons, [having] slow starts. We knew that we needed to come in and set the tone right from the jump.

Offense, defense, special teams — I think across the board, we did exactly what we wanted to do.”

And there’s a challenge that follows that kind of excellence:

Maintaining it.

The Niners were awesome in Game 1, but this cannot be the peak.

While expecting San Francisco to play this well weekly would be ridiculous, it would be immensely disappointing if the season’s first game was the team’s high-water mark.

Every season there are teams who come out hot and fade away as the games progress. For a team with clear Super Bowl aspirations, that cannot be the script.

Of course, there’s little reason to think that will be the case for the 49ers, who have been to the NFC Championship Game three of the last four seasons.

Staying healthy is the most important part of this team’s formula for success. For the Niners, health has been an issue — relative to peers — for nearly a decade straight. So, while the 49ers have a talent advantage over nearly every team in the league, that’s only true if their top players are playing.

Where are the other growth areas? It takes some severe nitpicking to find them.

Rushing plays between the tackles left something to be desired, save for McCaffrey’s touchdown scamper.

The Niners’ two-minute defense was less than great, too.

“I think there’s still some feel-it-out plays,” McCaffrey said. “We maybe could have done maybe a couple other things… That all comes with time. I think it’s important we keep growing each game.”

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Much of this responsibility to maintain and improve will fall on Purdy, the team’s second-year quarterback, who is now 7-0 in the regular season as the Niners’ top passer. (He also has two playoff wins.)

Quarterbacks decide a team’s destiny in this league, after all.

The Niners’ destiny appears to be in good hands, even if Purdy is the third lowest-paid 49er who suited up Sunday.

Purdy not only made the easy plays — the ones that nearly every quarterback under head coach Kyle Shanahan has made — but he also added some big-time throws into the mix, challenging the Steelers’ defense.

He made some play-extending and yard-gaining scrambles, too.

If Purdy has taken his game to the next level, the 49ers have more to offer in 2023 than at any other point in the Shanahan era.

And considering that this team has been on the precipice of a championship before, that can only mean one thing.

We’ll find out if that’s the case in due time.

But for the next few months, the 49ers can try to exceed the exceptionally high standard they set Sunday, and we can have a whole lot of fun watching their efforts.

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