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A loss in Week 5 wouldn’t dub the remaining 11 games meaningless, but it would dub the 49ers’ 2018 season as a wrap.
The “must-win” tag typically doesn’t apply to Week 5 games. But in the case of these 49ers, which currently sit at 1-3, on a two-game losing streak, and face challenging matchups in Weeks 6 and 7, Sunday’s home game with the Arizona Cardinals qualifies.
In Week 6, the 49ers visit Green Bay. The 49ers have lost all three of their away games in 2018. For a young team to emerge with a win in that environment, against Aaron Rodgers and company, seems unlikely. In Week 7, the 49ers host the undefeated Los Angeles Rams, the NFL’s blossoming juggernaut.
If the 49ers were to lose in Week 5, it’s very possible they would welcome the Oakland Raiders in Week 8 as a 1-6 team. That would officially divert all playoff hopes to 2019, when a fully healthy Jimmy Garoppolo returns and another top-10 draft pick awaits.
Week 5 will provide a measuring stick for these 49ers. It has all the hallmarks of a bounce-back win. The Cardinals are the only win-less team in the NFL. They will trot out a rookie quarterback, Josh Rosen, who is coming off his first professional start. Similar to the 49ers, the Cardinals have some young talent, and David Johnson is one of the top running backs in the league. But Sunday is the most winnable game remaining on San Francisco’s schedule, with the possible exception to its Week 17 matchup at Los Angeles. If the Rams continue this dominant pace, they will have secured playoff home field advantage by the final week, and they’d play their backups against San Francisco.
Four games into the season, the word is still out on these 49ers.
First, the positive: their offense did not suffer a production dip when C.J. Beathard stepped in for the injured Garoppolo in Week 4. Beathard completed 23 of 37 passes for 298 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He made big throws, got the ball out of his hand quicker than last year, and escaped pressure all game long. Twenty-seven points should be enough to win a game.
If Beathard plays solid, the 49ers offense isn’t much of a worry. They’re averaging 28 points per game in the past three weeks. Their rushing attack ranks sixth in the league. Matt Breida and George Kittle are second-year players who are playing like two of the best in the league at their respective positions. Kyle Shanahan will scheme his way to positive results, just as he did with Garoppolo last season.
The defense is where most of the issues lie. The 49ers are allowing 29.7 points per game. They have been prone to painfully wide-open touchdowns and opposing running backs trucking through hordes of players as if they were dummies. Other times, the young 49ers defense strings together stops, but it’s typically very good or very bad.
Which defense will we see moving forward? The unit that allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to score touchdowns on each of their first five drives of the game, or the unit that held the Chiefs to three second-half points?
Combine the inconsistency with the overarching issue: injuries. Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon are out for the season with torn ACLs. Three starting offensive linemen left last Sunday’s game for varying amounts of time with knee injuries, including Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley, whose status for Week 5 is in question. Rookie Dante Pettis is expected to miss at least two weeks. Marquise Goodwin is banged up. Three of San Francisco’s starting defensive backs — Richard Sherman, Adrian Colbert, and Jaquiski Tartt— were unavailable last week, though Colbert and Tartt are expected to play Sunday.
With most of their injured players expected to return, Week 5 is the 49ers’ best opportunity yet to play a complete game from start to finish. It’s a game they not only should win, but need to win to preserve any hopes for a memorable season.