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WE BEGAN last week with two undefeated teams in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots.
In the week’s first game, the 49ers beat division rivals Arizona Cardinals to move to a perfect 8-0, but the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, fresh off coach Bill Belichick’s 300th league win the previous week, fell for the first time this season to a Lamar Jackson-led Baltimore Ravens.
After a 4-12 season in 2018, no-one expected very much from the 49ers and in what United States television channel NBC called a “bold prediction,” they suggested the 49ers might have what it takes to make the play-offs, while NFL Network’s Adam Rank projected a three-win season.
Now, thanks to strong offensive and defensive line play – otherwise known as the trenches – along with a rookie defensive lineman playing at an All Pro level, the 49ers look a dead cert for a home game in the play-offs.
Coach Kyle Shanahan has always been known as one of the great young offensive minds in the NFL.
Along with rival coach Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams, Shanahan learnt his craft under the tutelage of his father Mike Shanahan in Washington.
Shanahan senior was a two-time Super Bowl champion in the 1990s with the Denver Broncos, while Kyle and his friend McVay both have one Super Bowl defeat each.
For Shanahan, it was the heartbreaking loss to the New England Patriots in 2017, where, despite being 28-3 up at half time, the Atlanta Falcons blew the game and the Patriots emerged victorious after a spectacular comeback.
The 49ers’ greatest strength is their defence, the unit started with two extremely talented defensive linemen in Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner who were joined last season by perennial All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
The defence was strong in 2018 but needed a few more pieces to really finish the build. Enter expensive free agent pass rusher Dee Ford from the Kansas City Chiefs and rookie lineman Nick Bosa, taken second overall.
Pass rush runs deep in the Bosa family. Nick’s brother Joey has been terrorising quarterbacks in the AFC for a few years now playing for the LA Chargers, while their father John played for the Miami Dolphins in the late 1980s.
They say that “defence win championships” and that has been true of great winners such as the 1984 Chicago Bears and the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, as Shanahan knows all too well.
“When we got here, our goal was to build a defence, build a defensive line,” he said. “Lots of teams have won the Super Bowl with a dominant defence and not a very good offence.”
The offence has become just as potent, with the focus on a talented running back committee of Tevin Coleman, Matt Brieda and Raheem Mostert.
The highlight of the team, however, is star tight end George Kittle.
Drafted in the fifth round of the 2017 draft, overlooked by so many teams, he has been an instant success in just his second season
Kittle smashed the single-season yardage record for a tight end by achieving 1,336 yards.
The biggest change for the team though is that they have their quarterback in the side this year.
Jimmy Garoppolo was injured for the entire 2018 season, coming off the back of a 5-0 winning record after being traded from the Patriots for a second round pick in 2017, and his return has been game-changing.
On Garoppolo, Kittle said: “The leadership that he carries and the voice that he has, both on the sideline and in the huddle, it’s incredible, he’s what makes our team click. He’s our leader.”
While the 49ers might be the final undefeated team in 2019, the Patriots are not far behind.
Their coach has just achieved his 300th victory in the league (regular and post-season) and he stands third all-time behind Don Shula (347) and George Halas (324).
Three-time coach of the year Belichick stands alone with nine Super Bowl appearances, Shula a distant second with six.
New England may have lost three, including two to their bogey team the New York Giants, but six Super Bowl victories is an incredible achievement.
Belichick has been kept company for most of his Patriots career by future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.
Of his coach’s achievement, Brady said: “It's pretty amazing, pretty amazing. Three hundred wins is pretty spectacular. He’s the best coach of all time and it'’s a privilege to play for him.”
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, Belichick is perhaps best known for the hoodie he wears at most of his games.
Well, the hoodie that he wore for his 300th win is also headed for Canton, Ohio, and will ,at some point I’m certain, be joined by the bust of its wearer.
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