These are the games you can firmly characterize as “taking care of business.” The 49ers and Carolina Panthers are in decidedly different tiers of the NFL’s hierarchy and San Francisco made that evident in a 37-18 win on Sunday in Charlotte.
While both entered with elite defenses and subpar offenses, the eye test told a much clearer story.
Baker Mayfield is a mess, Matt Rhule’s seat might be the hottest in the NFL and even with an ever-increasing injury list and an offense that is still extremely inconsistent, the 49ers made pretty easy work of Carolina.
There were clear areas for improvement. The offensive line had some poor moments. There were plenty of missed opportunities for explosives. Even the defense wasn’t at the same level it has been the previous four games.
But against a poor opponent they did far more right than wrong.
The running game, as has long been the case for this team, was a major component of the success. Jeff Wilson Jr. continues to run well, and his early 41-yard rush set up the opening touchdown for a resurgent Tevin Coleman, who just seems to crush the Panthers.
Both teams traded field goals after that to make it 10-3. Then, for the second time in as many games, SF secured a pick-six.
Baker Mayfield seems insistent on making atrocious plays, so you had a feeling the 49ers would make use of one of them. Emmanuel Moseley was that benefactor, securing a wild overthrow and hauling it back for 41 yards and giving SF a 17-3 lead.
Things did get a little squirrelly to start the third quarter, especially with Nick Bosa out with a groin injury. Christian McCaffrey scored the first touchdown against the SF defense since Denver, leaving it a one-score game.
Rhule and Mayfield are such a woeful combination that you never really expected Carolina to mount a comeback, but San Francisco did have to work to extend its lead.
Much of that was done with key individual plays and a key decision from Kyle Shanahan in the third quarter. With that eight-point lead, he ran Tevin Coleman for a loss of a yard on a third-and-2.
On fourth-and-3, Shanahan decided to go for it.
It felt like a situation where you might hear after the game “well, we were going to go for it, but we lost a yard.” We’d seen that in the past, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. The execution wasn’t excellent, but Deebo Samuel drew a pass interference call to move the chains.
On the next play, Jauan Jennings ripped off an outrageous 32-yard reception. He bounced off contact like George Kittle and rumbled his was down to the 3-yard line.
After Garoppolo had a touchdown run nullified, he found Samuel for a third-down touchdown over the middle. It put the 49ers, crucially, back up by a couple scores.
From there, the offense churned clock via third-down conversions and a steady dose of Wilson Jr. and Coleman.
There was an incredible stiff arm turned third-and-8 conversion from Kyle Juszczyk. An 18-yard reception from Brandon Aiyuk, also on third-and-8, followed three plays later. On third-and-10, Jennings came up huge again, juking C.J. Henderson out of his shoes down the left sideline for a 13-yard play.
Three plays later, Wilson Jr. got his long-overdue touchdown to put the 49ers up 30-12. A bizarre Robbie Gould injury meant a shank of all shanks came from Mitch Wishnowsky on the extra point attempt.
This wasn’t a totally dominant performance, but it had contributions from just about everyone.
Jimmy Garoppolo (18-for-30, 253 yards, 2 TDs) was solid and most importantly, did not turn the ball over. That always seemed the only route for the Panthers to have a chance. George Kittle’s second career fumble was the only one of those they’d get.
Wilson Jr. had 17 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown with Coleman backing him up for eight carries, a touchdown reception, touchdown run and an unbelievable Randy Moss-like 30-yard grab down the left sideline.
Six different players had at least two receptions, all of whom had at least 20 yards receiving.
This wasn’t the most dominant game we’ve seen from this defense in the past, but that’s probably an assessment borne out of being spoiled by this unit. There was a little bit of an expectation for Baker Mayfield to take a sack every play. He took four.
They allowed their first touchdown since the Russell Wilson back-breaker in the fourth quarter in Denver. It was just the second touchdown they’ve conceded in the past 16 quarters.
The greater concern going forward is injuries. On Sunday, Jimmie Ward, Nick Bosa, Robbie Gould and Emmanuel Moseley — inside the final five minutes — all suffered injuries.
Both Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw missed out and have already been ruled out for next week.
At a certain point, you wonder if those injuries will affect results. The 49ers will hope White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia will offer some healing in this next week as they prepare for Atlanta.