SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Way back in 1990, the San Francisco 49ers started the season with 10 consecutive victories. Before this year’s edition, that was the only team in Niners history to win its first seven games.
The 1990 Niners were a juggernaut, coming off a Super Bowl championship and ready to win a third consecutive title. But as talented as that squad was, it never did what the 2019 Niners did Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers entered Sunday’s game well rested after the bye week and riding a four-game winning streak. It didn’t matter.
The Niners throttled Carolina 51-13 to improve to 7-0. Those 51 points were the most by the 49ers in a game since Dec. 19, 1993, against Detroit and six more than the 1990 Niners scored in their largest offensive output.
“We knew this was a really good test, and we knew we were gonna have to play an all-around game, offense and defense, special teams,” 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa said. “But it was the same. Same vibe. … That’s a really good team we just played. That’s a good win.”
It was the latest in a line of lopsided loses the 49ers have handed out. This run has left some to wonder what, exactly, a team will have to do to beat San Francisco.
To some, it was another statement affirming the Niners’ legitimacy as contenders. In the locker room, however, it didn’t feel that way. This team doesn’t mind using slights, real and perceived, as motivation, but it isn’t very interested in looking beyond the next task at hand.
This week, it’s a quick turnaround to play the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL).
“We’ve got a short week this week,” 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “We haven’t beat the Cardinals in I don’t know how long — since I’ve been here we haven’t beat them. We’ve got a big challenge ahead. It’s a division game, and honestly, we’re going to play them, the Seahawks and them again. We’ve got to come out firing on Thursday night.”
Seven games in, that week-to-week approach has served the 49ers well against different challenges. They have found multiple ways to win, from the Week 3 escape after five turnovers against the Steelers to beatdowns such as Sunday and Week 2 against Cincinnati.
Through it all, the Niners never seemed to put all the pieces together — until Sunday. A 38-point win in the NFL is hard to do, no matter the opponent and especially against one many believe has playoff potential. Still, there was no shortage of San Francisco players willing to point out mistakes.
Tight end George Kittle wasn’t happy with the safety the Niners allowed early in the second half. Cornerback Richard Sherman pointed to the big plays the defense allowed, including a 40-yard touchdown run by Christian McCaffrey. Those were two examples of why there was disagreement in San Francisco’s locker room about whether it was the best performance of the season.
“No, I don’t think so,” 49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander said. “We have a lot of work to do. We are trying to be the best of the best, so we have to keep working on how to be the best of the best, and that is where we want to be.”
Although the 49ers have seen backups such as cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, fullback Ross Dwelley and tackles Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill play at a high level in the absence of injured starters, the reality is that there’s still plenty of room for the team to improve by getting healthy.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk could all return in time for the Nov. 11 game against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football. If that happens and the Niners handle business against Arizona as expected on Thursday, it’s fair to wonder if and when this team will lose.
Arizona sits at the bottom of the NFC West and plays the Niners twice in the next three games. Seattle is second in the division but has shown plenty of warts in eking out wins against opponents San Francisco has decimated. It isn’t unreasonable to think the Niners could be 10-0 when the Green Bay Packers visit Nov. 24, bringing the first in a stretch of games that includes back-to-back road games at Baltimore and New Orleans.
Not that any of these players are thinking that far ahead.
“It only gets harder from here,” defensive end Dee Ford said. “We understand that as a team. We enjoy the wins, but we erase it and move on.”
For the 1990 49ers, game 11 brought a shocking loss to the 3-7 Los Angeles Rams. That history should serve as a distant but important reminder for these 49ers as they figure out how to handle success.
“Everybody has to play us and line up and make us prove it again,” Sherman said. “It doesn’t matter if they respect us or not. It doesn’t matter if they say, ‘Oh my god, this is the best team in football,’ or if they say we’re the worst team in football. The next team that steps in front of us is going to have to deal with us regardless of what they say.
“It doesn’t really matter what the outside world thinks. … We know the talent we have, we just got to execute, we got to focus on us, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”