In an NFL era when consistency is awfully hard to come by and perfection virtually impossible to obtain, Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers are making both look very easy.
The West Coast heavyweights left no doubt as to who presents the greatest challenge to the Philadelphia Eagles’ throne atop the NFC with Sunday night’s 42-10 thrashing of the Dallas Cowboys, a team that came into San Francisco with a reputation of being a legitimate title contender in its own right.
That perception may now be shattered after the 49ers bullied Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense from the opening bell and moved the ball effortlessly behind another flawless performance from Purdy, the once draft afterthought who just simply doesn’t lose or make mistakes.
San Francisco hasn’t tasted defeat in a regular-season game in nearly a full calendar year, as it brings a 15-game winning streak into its NFL Week 6 game at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Ohio on FOX. The last 10 of those victories have come with Purdy under center after the 262nd and final pick of last year’s draft replaced an injured Jimmy Garoppolo in December and never looked back.
Purdy may still never be in the conversation for the greatest late-round pick of all time – a certain former Patriots and Buccaneers QB has that title locked up – but he is closing in on matching an accomplishment of another future Hall of Fame quarterback:
MOST WINNING QB STARTS TO BEGIN A CAREER SINCE 1950 (REGULAR SEASON)
- 1. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (15/2004-05)
- T-2. Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers (10/2022-23)
- T-2. Mike Tomczak, Chicago Bears (10/1986-87)
- T-2. Mike Livingston, Kansas City Chiefs (10/1969-72)
San Francisco’s deadly efficient offense has now put up 30 or more points in eight straight regular-season games dating back to 2022, becoming only the fifth team in NFL history with a streak that long.
The four teams ahead of the 49ers all reached the Super Bowl in one of those two overlapping seasons:
MOST CONSECUTIVE GAMES WITH 30+ POINTS (SPANS SEASONS)
- 1999-2000 St. Louis Rams (14/Won Super Bowl in 1999)
- 2010-11 New England Patriots (13/Lost Super Bowl in 2011)
- 2012-13 Denver Broncos (11/Lost Super Bowl in 2013)
- 2006-07 New England Patriots (9/Lost Super Bowl in 2007)
- 2022-23 San Francisco 49ers (8/TBD)
That highly impressive run could be put to its sternest test to date this week, however. The Cleveland Browns sport the league’s top overall defense according to EVE (our efficiency vs. expected metric) and have largely been a shutdown operation whenever Cleveland’s scattershot and injury-plagued offense hasn’t been too large an impediment.
Not surprisingly, P.J. Watson starting over Deshaun Watson has gotten the wagering public firmly on the side of the Niners as the best bets, who now rate as heavy 9.5-point favorites at the sportsbooks at last check. They’ve also pegged the game as a defensive struggle with the over/under total set at just 36 points. Our model gives the 49ers a 57% probability of winning this one outright on the road.
Watson hasn’t played since a 27-3 win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 4 due to a shoulder injury that’s becoming more and more shrouded in mystery and controversy.
SF Key: Spread the Ball Around
The underdog Browns don’t figure to score a lot of points in this one for a multitude of reasons we’ll get more into later, so it’s imperative that their sturdy defense keeps them in it with a chance at the end. And that’s far from out of the question, even against a diverse San Francisco offense ranked second overall in EVE that rarely puts itself in a bad spot with critical errors.
Cleveland may be able to counter one of the 49ers’ big areas of strength, their Christian McCaffrey-led ground game, with a stout run defense that’s limited opponents to a league-low 21.3% of successful run plays with the best stuff rate in the NFL at 15.7% (a stuff is defined as any tackle of a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage on a rushing attempt).
And if they’re able to get San Francisco into obvious passing situations, they can unleash a formidable pass rush headed by Myles Garrett, the league’s leader in pressure rate among players with 25 or more pass-rush attempts at 31.6%.
But where the Browns are most impressive on defense is their unmatched ability to cover receivers, as evidenced by a burn-allowed rate of 30.3% and an open-allowed percentage of 65.7 that are both comfortably at the top of the NFL.
The biggest contributors to those gaudy numbers reside at the outside corners, where Denzel Ward has produced a microscopic burn-allowed rate of 13.6% along with a 45.5% open-allowed rate thus far. Counterpart Martin Emerson has been stellar as well with a 38.5 open-allowed percentage allowed along with a burn-allowed rate of 30.8%.
BEST OPEN-ALLOWED% BY CBs IN 2023 (MIN. 12 DEF. TARGETS)
- Isaac Yiadom, New Orleans Saints (33.3)
- Martin Emerson, Cleveland Browns (38.5)
- James Bradberry, Philadelphia Eagles (42.1)
- Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns (45.5)
- DJ Turner, Cincinnati Browns (50.0)
The Browns are undeniably adept at defending downfield throws, but their pass defense did show some vulnerability when attacked underneath in their 28-7 loss to Baltimore in Week 4. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson averaged just 6.94 air yards per attempt that day but completed a crisp 15 of 19 attempts for 186 yards and two touchdowns to tight end Mark Andrews, who finished with an impactful 80 yards on five catches.
San Francisco could very well employ a similar strategy and certainly has the parts to make it work. For one, the 49ers possess one of the game’s premier receiving running backs in McCaffrey, whose 70.8 burn rate ranks second at the position among those targeted 10 or more times. And like the Ravens, they’ve got a pretty good tight end as well in George Kittle, who broke out from a mostly quiet first quarter of the season with three touchdown grabs in the Dallas rout last week.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see Kyle Shanahan deploy the dynamic Deebo Samuel more in the slot this week in order to limit 1-on-1 matchups with Ward and Emerson. Though most of his routes this season have come outside, Samuel has recorded a 90.0% open rate and 80.0% burn rate when targeted inside.
He’s also one of the league’s most dangerous receivers in open space, an area where the Browns have shown some weakness. Cleveland, which is coming off a bye week, is allowing an average of 6.0 yards after the catch per reception – the fifth-highest rate in the NFL this season – and nearly 57% of the passing yards it has allowed have come after the catch.
CLE Key: Establish the Run
Watson’s lingering shoulder woes will keep him out for a second straight game, creating the seemingly hopeless proposition of the Browns taking on possibly the NFL’s most complete team with Walker at quarterback.
A closer look illustrates that Cleveland’s chances may be for the most part about the same regardless of who’s under center.
Walker got in six games with five starts for Carolina last season and finished with a 77.7 well-thrown percentage and a 5.83 pickable pass percentage. Not inspiring numbers by any means, but also not far off the well-thrown rate of 76.3% and 5.53 pickable pass percentage Watson has delivered for the Browns since returning from last season’s 11-game suspension.
At the very least, the position should be in more capable hands than the debacle against the Baltimore Ravens, in which rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson resoundingly flopped with three interceptions when thrown into the fire. As a result, Amari Cooper had just one catch for 16 yards in the 28-3 loss.
Walker has made seven career NFL starts, and he’s actually won four of them. And there’s a common denominator in each of those victories in that his team ran the ball well and played good defense.
The Panthers allowed 15 points or less in all of Walker’s career wins and averaged 171.8 rushing yards in those games. They also put up 169 yards on the ground in a game at Atlanta last season that Walker started and lost in overtime.
We’ve already outlined how the defense may be able to do its part. The other portion of the equation seems a bit trickier, however.
It would have been a whole lot easier for Cleveland had Nick Chubb not torn his ACL back in Week 2. The Browns averaged a potent 202 rushing yards per game in the two games their star back has been at least partly present for this season. They’ve averaged 85.5 yards per game in two games since, and the chart displays how steep the drop-off has been in related areas:
As you can see, the pieced-together committee of Jerome Ford, Pierre Strong and in-season reacquisition Kareem Hunt has been generating splash plays at a considerably reduced rate since Chubb’s injury, and negative ones have been far more prevalent.
That’s a worrisome trend for an offense that wasn’t offering much explosion in the passing game even with Watson healthy, and a problem the Browns will need to correct to fulfill our prediction model’s prophecy as the team with the best chance of winning a competitive AFC North over the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens.
It should be noted that Cleveland offered little in the way of a passing threat in Thompson-Robinson’s out-of-the-blue start against the Ravens, which probably contributed to those lackluster rushing totals. And although the 49ers have held the Steelers, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals and Cowboys all under 17 points and are allowing a scant 1.5 yards before contact on rushing plays, they don’t generate a whole lot of negative plays with a stuff rate that’s 30th in the league at 5.7%.
San Francisco has also strangely struggled in third-and-short situations, as opponents have converted all 11 of their attempts when running the ball with four or fewer yards to make. So, if the Browns can be effective in a methodical manner by getting some push in the running game, hitting their short throws and avoiding turnovers (another big issue this season), they may just be able to make this a little more exciting than the pundits are prognosticating.
It’s a big ask for sure, but stranger things have happened. Like a Mr. Irrelevant blossoming into a franchise quarterback.
Check out the rest of our NFL picks, along with every team’s chances at making the playoffs in our season predictions. We also have all the college football top 25 predictions. And don’t forget to follow us on X and Instagram.