In 2013, the San Francisco 49ers and Balitmore Ravens played in the Super Bowl. A decade later it seems we could be hurtling towards the same outcome. With 15 weeks of the regular season in the books there are only two teams who are playing to their potential and really seem like they want to win on a consistent basis — and the big question is “why?”
There are plenty of really great teams in the league this season. You could lump as many as eight different organizations in the NFL’s upper echelon with the Cowboys, Eagles, Bills, Chiefs, Lions and Dolphins all being able to claim themselves as elite talents this year. However, only San Francisco and Baltimore can say they have a resume that backs up being the best team in the league, without any weird blemishes to show for it.
What makes these two teams different? Why is the field struggling? Are we really hurtling towards a Super Bowl XLVII rematch?
The San Francisco 49ers
- 1st in the NFL in passing offense
- 3rd in the NFL in rushing offense
- 1st in the NFL in passing defense
Kyle Shanahan hasn’t just cracked the code of the modern NFL, he wrote it. His signature West Coast offense variant has proven to be impossible to stop in the passing game, and with Brock Purdy under center he has the perfect system quarterback to be an extension of his coaching on the field.
This varied attack punctuates the typical quick-read, rhythm passing of a WCO with deep throws to shred busted coverage that overcommits to stopping run-after-catch throws to the flats, or to running back Christian McCaffrey.
What really puts the 2023 Niners over the top was Shanahan’s brilliant decision to hire a defensive coordinator from outside the organization, rather than promote from within when DeMeco Ryans was hired away by the Texans. Steve Wilks stepped into the role as 49ers’ defensive coordinator after a brilliant run as the Carolina Panthers’ interim head coach a year ago, and he immediately used his knowledge as a secondary genius and applied it to the 49ers already great roster.
The result is a unit that’s allowed 0.6 fewer yards per reception, while also being ruthless to opposing quarterbacks — intercepting more passes and sacking them more often. Wilks has lifted an already great unit and made them even better.
The Baltimore Ravens
- 1st in the NFL in yards-per-attempt allowed
- 1st in the NFL in points allowed
- 1st in the NFL in rushing offense
It turns out that Lamar Jackson can be pretty damn good if you give him weapons. WHO KNEW?! Offensively the Ravens are the same team we’ve seen for years, just taken to a higher level. This is still the Lamar show, with Jackson leading the team in rushing with 741 yards and five touchdowns to go along with his 3,000+ yards passing.
The difference in 2023 has been Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr. The two new additions to the attack are paying huge dividends, especially Flowers who leads the team in receiving yards. As a rookie he’s on pace to be the first WR for Baltimore since Marquise Brown in 2020 to have more yards than tight end Mark Andrews. This ability to stretch the field has diversified the Ravens’ attack and made them a more complete football team.
Defensively this team is fearsome as well. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike has exploded in 2023 with 12.0 sacks, and when paired with Jadaveon Clowney at EDGE (7.5 sacks) creates a scenario where the pocket is routinely collapsing for opposing QBs. With two brilliant inside linebackers in Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen this defense is smart, organized, and gets the job done.
What about everyone else?
The issue when looking at the rest of the NFL in comparison with these two teams is consistency. While San Francisco and Baltimore have had some bone-headed losses (the 49ers to the Vikings and the Ravens to the Steelers), they have been better as a whole in winning the games they should, and being competitive in ones that are pushes.
We can’t say the same for the rest of the upper echelon. The Dolphins are yet to beat a team with a winning record, the Chiefs will be more vulnerable than they should until they get a better receiver than Kadarius Toney, while the Cowboys, Lions, Bills and Eagles all have a habit to lose focus and drop games they should win.
It leaves us with a scenario where any of these teams could win in the playoffs, but right now the only two organizations who feel like they’re really put together right now are the Niners and Ravens.
Are we destined for a Super Bowl rematch?
It’s still far too early to say. On paper these are the two best regular season teams in the NFL, but we know that doesn’t mean a lot. When it comes to the NFC it’s pretty difficult to imagine anyone getting past San Francisco unless they play flawless football and force some mistakes from the 49ers.
The AFC is a bit of a different story. There’s absolutely a scenario where the Ravens could struggle in a shootout against either the Chiefs or Bills, but that’s assuming those teams play to their full potential — which is a bit of a tossup.
Right now things look very good if you’re a fan in San Francisco or Baltimore, and if you’re not then these are the teams you want to emulate.